May 12, 2014 7:38am PT by Lacey Rose
TV Upfronts: Fox's Kevin Reilly on 'Idol' Changes, 'Gotham' Hype and a 'Tough' Season
Five months after declaring pilot season dead at his network, Fox Broadcasting chairman Kevin Reilly prepared to greet the advertising community with a similar message.
But before doing so, he made his case to the press, using his pre-upfront platform to stress the significance of a year-round schedule and the importance of "events" in a fractured landscape. Given another mediocre season in the ratings -- Fox is even, despite having the Super Bowl, and fell to No. 2 behind NBC in the coveted 18 to 49 demo -- Reilly was forced to address the disappointments in the mix, including free-falling American Idol and aging franchises including not-yet-slated Glee.
Also on offer were his thoughts and strategy for new entries such as Lee Daniels' upstairs-downstairs hip-hop drama Empire; Bruno Heller's Batman prequel, Gotham; and Steven Spielberg's Red Band Society, which Reilly suggested was the next iteration of the young-appeal soap in the way that 90210, The O.C. and Glee once were for Fox years earlier.
Below are the highlights:
This Is the Reality
Reilly addressed the reporter pool with the kind of candor for which he's well known. "Although I don't really acknowledge the official season as defined by Nielsen, if you were to look at the official season as defined by Nielsen, this past one was a tough one for us," he said, adding: "Especially the second half of the year, where some of our returning shows didn't perform as well as we had anticipated." In trying to explain how and why Fox has suffered, he pointed to such things as a younger demo less interested in linear viewing, increased offerings on cable and daylight saving time. Although he stressed his strategy for year-round programming and tailored episode orders, he (surprisingly) didn't use his pre-upfront platform to denounce the pilot process, which he's previously described as a wasteful one that sets his network and others back tens of millions of dollars -- and costs them talent that prefers the relative ease of cable.
American Idol's New Format
American Idol fatigue has set in, a reality that Reilly didn't bother to spin. He noted that the show will be pared down to 37 hours next season, a significant shift from the 50-something hours that have been produced in recent years. Although he was careful to note that "the show will be on the air for many years to come," he said he's not counting on it to be the ratings juggernaut it once was. Rather, the focus at this stage of its 13-year run is on making it a "potent" and "good" show in its time period, much the way long-running Survivor has been for CBS in its later years. As of now, the plan is to have the singing competition air over two nights during the audition phase next season, and then as a two-hour, one-night-a-week event for the remainder of the season. Reilly was not ready to confirm that his judges panel will be returning next season, though multiple sources suggest the trio will indeed be back.
High Hopes for Gotham
Gotham garnered a disproportionate amount of airtime during the morning's conference call, which is demonstrative of both the network's passion and expectation for it. Reilly kicked it off by saying the Bruno Heller series has the potential to be "this season's biggest and noisiest hit." That the Batman prequel features a coterie of actual franchise characters, including Bruce Wayne and the Riddler, is an advantage that ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD didn't have, and may have been hurt by, according to Reilly. He nonetheless acknowledged that "you're always nervous that it won't live up" to expectations, but that seeing the first episode put many of those concerns to rest for him. Promising signs: an initial order of 16, rather than the traditional 13, and the fact that more than 6 million have already watched the series trailer online.
No Laughing Matter
Reilly insisted his decision to infuse live action into Fox's Sunday-night animation block says more about his faith in his long-running animated assets, The Simpsons and Family Guy, than it does anything else. He's using the latter, which gets a boost from football in the fall, to potentially lift sophomore effort Brooklyn Nine-Nine and newcomer Mulaney, much the way former Fox hits including Married With Children did many years earlier. The network will remain committed to animation, he confirmed, a profitable genre for which Fox has had something of a monopoly on in the broadcast sphere. But, as he noted, it has become increasingly difficult to launch comedies without cover, adding that even in a time-shifted, on-demand era, lead-ins are still particularly important for the half-hour entries. For that reason, he's abandoning the four-hour live-action comedy block on Tuesday and instead kicking off the night with unscripted series Utopia as a lead-in for The Mindy Project and New Girl.
Glee's Uncertain Future
While this season will be Glee's last, it isn't clear exactly when it will return -- nor is it clear how much of the final 22-episode order will air. "The order currently is for 22, but we're actually going to sit down with Ryan [Murphy] and really talk about how we're going to end it and figure that out," he said, adding: "The advantage of having it on later in the season is that we don't have to feel the pressure of delivering. We can do them in a row. We're going to sit down and talk about exactly the best way to end the show and how many [episodes] that is." That the musical series got a two-season pickup the last time around was itself "a business negotiation," said Reilly, who was asked about --and adequately side-stepped the topic of-- the ratings tumble the series has taken of late.