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Fox's Kevin Reilly on Netflix 'Mystery Audience,' 'Dads' Controversy, 'Idol' Future

"I don’t think we’re any kind of bastard child or broken system,” the Fox chairman said of broadcast TV during his turn at the TCA.

Kevin Reilly Summer TCA Panel - H 2013
Frank Micelotta/FOX
Kevin Reilly

Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly trotted onstage on Thursday with welcomed candor.

But before being barraged by questions from members of the Television Critics Association, he took a few minutes to discuss the ever-evolving landscape in which he and his network rivals operate.  

Among his key points: He's no longer as focused on the live-plus-same-day figures and he wishes the press didn’t need to be either. “Overnight [ratings] are a marker of success, but they’re becoming only a sliver of the story,” he said from the Beverly Hilton stage, pushing the value of multiple platforms, from VOD to Hulu. Like NBC rival Bob Greenblatt, he had prepped a series of slides, which highlighted the significance of DVR (and other platforms) lift for shows like Glee, The Following and New Girl. The trio grew 37 percent, 65 percent and 61 percent and 59 percent, respectively, when seven-day viewing was factored in.

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On several different occasions during the 45-minute session, Reilly urged those writing about the business to have "perspective," particularly as it relates to broadcast vs. cable. His message: Not only is basic cable still largely propped up by network acquisitions (and feature films), but also the ratings that qualify a series as a “hit” on cable often warrants cancelation on a broadcast network like Fox. To drive home his point, he shared a stat he had employed months earlier at Fox’s upfront presentation -- of the 1,050 original series on basic cable, only four rank within the top 50. Of course, the fact that AMC’s Walking Dead, a rare exception, rounded out the TV season at No. 1 should serve as proof that cable is capable of producing broadcast-size ratings and therefore, he said, the genre should be treated equally by the media. "So welcome to the party," he quipped.

At one point during the presentation, Reilly stopped to insist that he didn’t have a chip on his shoulder about broadcast’s place in the current landscape, refuting a comment Greenblatt had made earlier in the tour about the perception of broadcast. “I don’t think we’re any kind of bastard child or broken system,” he said, noting that it was on him and his competitors --“most” of which he said he respects-- to do away with some of broadcast’s more anachronistic practices. As he has done several times before, he stressed the need to get out of the “arbitrary 35-week season” business (instead launch and run series year-round) and to focus on shorter 13- or 15-episode orders when it makes sense. He said of the changes necessary to adapt: “The one-size-fits all business is over.”

Among the topics he was forced to address later in the session: the offensive nature of new comedy Dads, the future of both X Factor and American Idol and the "mystery" that is Netflix. Here are the highlights:

Give Dads A Shot

The Fox chief knew he wouldn’t be able to get through his panel without being attacked about the potentially offensive nature of Dads, a new comedy from the writers of Ted. And Reilly was prepared, at one point pulling out a piece of paper in which he could read off a series of negative early reviews for The Big Bang Theory, which went on to become a giant hit for CBS. As for the controversial fare in the pilot, Reilly noted that it is just that: a pilot. He urged the room to keep watching because the showrunners are some of the most talented in the business (“Ted wasn’t a fluke or an accident,” he said) and the series will prove an equal opportunity offender much as Family Guy has. Pressed again, he admitted that not all of the jokes in the first episode were in calibration and that that series would need to earn its audience. But, as he reminded the room, Dads is an important step in establishing a multi-camera sitcom business at Fox, and viewers will let him know whether this show is a good fit.

Idol Search Continues

Though the Fox chief has used the TCA stage to make big announcements about Idol in the past, he had little to share outside of confirming that Keith Urban would be back. In a smaller post-panel gaggle, he added that departing judge Randy Jackson would likely remain involved as a friend of the show. As for the reports of other potential judges, including Idol vet Jennifer Lopez, he said many of the names reported are names that have been bandied about but there are no deals. All he would allow is that his team wants “some comfortable judges to make it comfortable to view.” Going forward, he noted there would be tweaks to the tent-pole show, and that the goal would be to return to a place where Idol is more about the contestants than it is -- and in recent seasons, has been -- about the judges.

Netflix’s 'Mystery' Audience

“We’ve always been in the business of speaking loudly to a big audiences. There are a lot of networks in the business of speaking loudly to small audiences. And then there are services like Netflix that are speaking to an unreported mystery audience,” Reilly said at one point, adding to the growing contingent of network chiefs that have used the TCA stage to take a jab at the industry’s latest entrant. Unlike the others, Reilly acknowledged that a piece of what was going on was pure jealousy. Though he's pushing to change the way his business in measured and monetized, he was the first to admit he’s still up well before 5 a.m. daily waiting on ratings for which he “lives and dies.” To be able to avoid those discussions about ratings, as Netflix has done thus far, is what Reilly calls “my definition of heaven.” Perhaps cognizant of Netflix’s value to his business as a second-run distributor of several Fox series -- for which the platform provides an “incredible catch up” option -- Reilly also praised the service's current crop of originals: “They’ve come out of the gate with a hot hand.”

Leave Mindy Alone

Reilly doesn’t care for the asterisk that the media often puts next to Fox comedy The Mindy Project when describing the comedy’s performance. The series, which he says averages a 2.2 rating, is treated as a “middling performer” as other lesser-watched shows around the landscape, particularly in cable, get labeled hits. “I would watch Louie [of FX] on a loop. But you have to combine Louie and [HBO’s] Girls together to get to that Mindy number,” he told reporters, adding that his other darling, New Girl, which he notes is still building, garners 12 times the audience of IFC’s Portlandia.

X Factor Lives On

If you believe Reilly, the latest shakeup to the judges’ panel is in part due to creator Simon Cowell being a “perfectionist.” After all, the exec suggests last year’s panel “worked,” with returning judge Demi Lovato the breakout star, noting that those viewers who watched it liked it. Still, he urged the room to watch the latest crop: “This year we really got it right.”

Post-Darnell Reality

Some two months after news broke that veteran reality chief Mike Darnell was departing, Fox has yet to name a replacement. Pressed on what's happening during a post-panel gaggle, Reilly revealed that he'd have a name to share within the month. "Just about everybody in that business has thrown their hat in the ring; from the producers side, international, current executives," he added of the hiring process. "It's a great job because unscripted at Fox has been a part of our history when we kept the lights on and a huge part of our profile now with our big hits."