upfronts 2013

After Playing It Safe, Fox Will Spend Lots of Rupert Murdoch’s Money to Find More Hits

Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine Photo: Fox

At first blush, the new fall schedule Fox unveiled today is not much different than last year’s lineup, which itself wasn’t radically different from the 2011 model. Mondays are still about drama, comedies are still on Sunday and Tuesday, people sing on Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday (at least early in the fall) is a mix of Gordon Ramsay and leftovers. But despite the surface stability, Fox is actually planning to make big changes next season by dramatically increasing the amount of original programming it offers, as well as when it offers it. The network will air a big chunk of Glee in the summer, serve up at least four shows whose seasons run a cablelike fifteen episodes or less (including a reboot of 24), and all but eliminate in-season repeats for a number of shows. Some of this has been tried before, by Fox and other networks. But this time, Fox is also putting what may be an unprecedented amount of programming muscle behind this effort, ordering a whopping thirteen new series (including two so-called “event” series). “We’re making the biggest investment in entertainment programming we’ve ever made at Fox,” network chief Kevin Reilly told reporters Monday during a conference call. “We’re going to really try to break out of the traditional season.” Reilly chalked up the strategy shift to the quickly changing “way people are watching TV,” and no doubt that’s a big part of it. But there’s another, much more practical reason for Fox’s big push.

As we noted in our upfront walk-up last week, Fox has produced precious few scripted hits in recent years. It nonetheless finished first among adults under 50 for eight consecutive seasons, a streak that will be ended this month by an ascendant CBS. What kept Fox on top, in good development years and bad, was American Idol. Its towering strength served as a sort of insurance policy for the network, covering up for misfires such as Lone Star or The Mob Doctor (and turbo-charging scripted successes, as it did with House and Glee). Idol was so powerful, it allowed Reilly to brush off reporters who last May challenged him on Fox’s decision to order just four new series (one of which, The Goodwin Games, would end up being burned off in the summer). “You don’t have to have three more backups when you feel really good [about development],” he said then. Reilly’s obviously had a change of heart. The thirteen different series Fox has announced so far for next fall (and next year) is triple the number of bets Fox took last spring. Spending a ton on new product is no guarantee of success, of course: ABC launched a dozen shows this season, and neither of the two renewed so far (Nashville and The Neighbors) could be considered hits.

But Fox seems to be taking a much smarter approach to the big volume strategy than ABC. Rather than just tossing on shows whenever holes open up, Fox seems to have an idea of where they’ll all go. And it’s opening up more real estate in the summer, when network competition will be (slightly) less intense and more marketing money will be available. Once again, this isn’t a new approach: CBS renewed Unforgettable specifically as a summer show, and it’s beating Fox to the “event series” punch with Under the Dome. And nineties-era Fox loved summer originals, from Melrose Place to its first summer event, the short-lived Heath Ledger series Roar (think Game of Thrones, only not good). What’s updated, though, is the way Fox will integrate these shows into its regular season. New drama Gang Related and the rebooted 24: Live Another Day are likely to start in May and run until just before the fall launch; they’ll be supported by new episodes of Glee and very possibly some first-run Fox comedies. What’s more, a number of other shows will take the place of reruns during the traditional season. Glee, for example, won’t have an on-again, off-again air pattern next season, because the two halves of its season will be spelled by the Greg Kinnear drama Rake. Mondays also figure to be mostly, if not all, originals for most of the year as Fox cycles different ones in and out.

This won’t be cheap, of course. Repeats have long been a massive source of revenue for networks, monies that amortize the high costs of original programming (networks don’t pay more for second or third runs of shows). But even mighty CBS is seeing Nielsen numbers for many of its repeats  collapse as more viewers get DVRs (and those viewers who’ve had DVRs upgrade to machines which can hold hundreds of hours of content). Curtailing reruns may not be the best short-term business strategy, but in the long run, it might result in more successful scripted shows, while also stemming audience erosion.

Beyond the big-picture strategy of Fox’s new lineup, there are also smaller changes worth examining. Like, for example, the network’s decision to go big with sci-fi and fantasy on Mondays. Fans of the genre have to be happy that the various writers and producers behind the excellent Fringe have been handed the night for Almost Human and Sleepy Hollow. Reilly seemed to stretch a bit by comparing both shows to Bones, noting all three have what he calls the “partner dynamic” of folks working together to fight bad guys. That may be true, but it’s also worth nothing that Fringe, after a strong start, quickly lost audience and was kept alive on Fridays via life support for years. It could be that the new shows have broader appeal and will be good counter-programming to the female-skewing fare on ABC, CBS, and NBC Mondays. Still, Reilly is showing an awful lot of faith in genre programming, which, save for The X Files, has never worked in a big way on Fox.

The network’s Tuesday comedy plan is much simpler and, on paper at least, more likely to yield results. Dads, from the Seth MacFarlane factory, promises to be as noisy and over-the-top as Raising Hope is quiet and quirky. It seems well matched with the Andy Samberg–led ensemble Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which industry insiders tell us has a broad-based appeal that should attract both male and female viewers. We’re also glad Fox kept New Girl and The Mindy Project together. Comedies need time to find their voice and, often, their audience; splitting the two after just one year would’ve been a mistake. By contrast, the biggest head-scratcher on Fox’s schedule is its Friday lineup. Not the kiddie version of MasterChef, which could attract the family audience that now loves Shark Tank. No, what’s puzzling is why Fox would bury Bones on Friday, when an episode last month drew a bigger rating among adults under 50 than NBC’s much-hyped (and The Voice–boosted) Revolution. Reilly says Bones will boost Fox’s Friday ratings, and that’s likely true. And maybe in the DVR era it doesn’t matter if an established show shifts to the hinterlands. But it’s odd that Fox would trade stability for the unknown. Moving Raising Hope makes a tad more sense, since it’s only a modest ratings performer and is likely in its last stretch of episodes. But slotting a brand-new comedy behind it (Enlisted) is just bizarre, perhaps even more bizarre than NBC’s announced, but never executed, plan to pair Whitney and Community on Fridays last fall. The odds of Enlisted finding an audience Fridays at 9:30 on Fox, opposite established successes Shark Tank and Grimm, are tiny. It just doesn’t compute. Don’t be surprised if Fox changes its mind between now and the fall.

Last year, our analysis of Fox’s lineup made much of the fact that Reilly is known around Hollywood as something of a gambler, an executive willing to take risks on shows such as The Shield (he green-lit it when he ran FX) or The Office (from his NBC’s days). Last season’s decision to stick with a pat hand seemed a bit out of character. This spring, Reilly the Gambler is back in a big way. He’s spending a whole bunch of Rupert Murdoch’s cash on a bevy of new programming. He’s reducing the number of financially lucrative repeats. And he’s returning to a genre (sci-fi) that has often resulted in failure for Fox. But given how quickly the TV landscape is changing, and how awful the 2012-13 season was for Fox, betting big may actually end up being the safest bet Fox could make right now.

Fox Schedule: Spending Big to Find More Hits