Fox Aims for Lighthearted Shows With Wide Appeal

Rob Lowe, such wide appeal.

Dana Walden and Gary Newman, the two veteran TV execs who took command of Fox last summer following the departure of longtime boss Kevin Reilly, have for the last few months made it very clear where they planned to take the network. "We're not looking to do smaller, dark programming. We're looking to have big, broad commercial hits,” Newman told The Hollywood Reporter in January, a not-so-subtle dig at Reilly’s penchant for cablelike shows such as Lone Star and Gracepoint. Based on the new lineup Fox revealed today, Walden and Newman are staying true to their word. The dramas are (mostly) lighthearted, even when crime is involved; the comedies are simple concepts with established stars. Fox may have lost 20 percent of its audience this season, but its plan to lure back viewers hinges on a heavy dose of optimism.

As we noted earlier today, the centerpiece of Fox’s fall schedule will be Empire, which will return in the fall and run for 18 episodes, divided into two batches. Fox made the tough but probably correct decision not to move the show out of its 9 p.m. Wednesday time slot, saying it wanted to keep fans happy by keeping the show where it was. As a result, Fox won’t be able to use Empire to directly lead into another new show, which is something of a bummer. But considering how young Empire is and how short viewers’ attention spans are these days, moving the show at all wasn’t a risk worth taking — particularly since Fox hasn’t had time to develop a show specifically tailored to appeal to the Empire audience. Fox will still try to turn Wednesdays into a night-long event, however, by slotting medical crime drama Rosewood at 8 p.m. The series features African-American and Latina co-leads, which may or may not be pandering but certainly makes more sense than anything else Fox could do in the hour this fall. In any event, having 50 percent more Empire next season means only good things for Fox.

If Fox is being conservative on Wednesday, it’s abandoning all caution on Tuesdays — but not recklessly so. The night has been a slow-motion disaster over the past two years, as the initially promising New Girl saw its audience evaporate (taking the always-small viewership for The Mindy Project with it). Fox shored up the night late last year with MasterChef Junior, and returning it to the 8 p.m. hour would’ve been a logical play. But reality shows don’t generate a lot of ad revenue, or at least not as much as most scripted fare. So instead, Fox will try to launch two single-camera half-hours starring middle-aged hunks, i.e., John Stamos (Grandfathered) and Rob Lowe (The Grinder), trying to tackle “adversity” with a wink. Walden quipped about Stamos’s appeal to women during Fox’s upfront presentation late Monday, and it’s clear the network is targeting ladies (and likely some guys) who love cool dudes who were big in the 1980s and 1990s. (We’re calling it the Fox 40-something Funtime Flashback Hour.) The clips of the shows look promising, and as ABC proved with Fresh Off the Boat, launching comedies on Tuesday isn’t impossible.

The new comedies lead into Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens, which will live or die on its own merits, regardless of whether it has a suitable lead-in. Fox has been promoting the show since February, so it’ll almost certainly debut with big numbers (as Ryan Murphy shows almost always do). There’s no way to know whether Scream Queens will then hold on to that audience, of course, but the threshold for success is super-low here: New Girl and Mindy averaged under 3 million same-day viewers this season. Network schedule are all about improving on last year’s numbers, and Murphy’s bubblegum horror-fest should be able to do so with ease.

Fox, like all networks, is making a big deal about rolling out shows throughout the year, and eliminating virtually all reruns. So while Mondays will begin with Gotham and a TV adaptation of Minority Report, it will segue to the return of The X-Files in January and February, paired with a new hour, Lucifer. The latter show is a weird crime drama that imagines the Devil himself has decamped to Los Angeles with a sudden interest in solving crimes. It probably won’t work, but Fox is at least giving the show a shot by scheduling it with the almost-certain-to-be-successful X-Files return. Overall, Fox probably hasn’t solved its Monday issues completely: Gotham is still a very narrowly focused hour (its core audience is young dudes and not much else), and Minority Report doesn’t look like it’ll be much broader. But with ABC and NBC focused on female audiences on Mondays, there’s room for Fox to at least stabilize on the night, and maybe make some overall improvement once X arrives.

Fox should also be able to do a bit better on Thursdays, though not that much better. The network opted to keep Bones at 8 p.m., which means settling for so-so demographic numbers — but a decent-size overall audience. By pairing the long-running crime-caper show with Sleepy Hollow at 9, Fox is hoping to re-create the chemistry the two shows had when they were partnered up in fall 2013. The difference now is that both shows are older, and Sleepy will have to face off against both Scandal and The Blacklist. It’s a tall order, but going up against The Voice and Dancing With the Stars was probably even more difficult. Fox owns Sleepy Hollow, which means the network has lots of incentive to keep it on the air for at least four seasons. Assuming producers can get the show back on track creatively, Thursdays could provide Sleepy with a peaceful spot to live out the rest of its existence. Meanwhile, Fridays for Fox should also improve now that MasterChef Junior is returning to the night, having attracted new fans on Tuesdays this season who might keep their DVRs set for the show. And Sundays are staying the same — good news for fans of the the strongest comedy block Fox has had on the night since King of the Hill still aired in the evening.

Among the big four broadcast networks, Fox is unique because it programs just two hours per night. That’s not a bad thing, since it means avoiding the slew of big cable hits at 10 p.m. and allows the network to focus its energies on a smaller number of shows. The downside is that Fox has less margin for error (every big flop is felt more) and fewer time slots in which to develop new hits. (Fox execs have probably never wanted to program 10 p.m. more than they do now in the age of Empire.) Despite these limitations, and despite the huge audience declines it suffered last season, Fox heads into the 2015–16 season with a surprising amount of momentum. Empire gave it a juggernaut, while Gotham and The Last Man on Earth gave it promising new shows with very loyal core audiences. The challenge for Walden and Newman is to turn last year’s sparks of hope into something more. Based on first impressions of their new lineup, they’re off to a good start.