5 Ways to Fix Fox: Advice for the Next Kevin Reilly
Broaden the comedy brand, focus on development, figure out reality (including letting "American Idol" die gracefully) and continue the exiting programmer's push to innovate.
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The problems that will greet Fox's new entertainment chairman aren't particular to the embattled network or to Kevin Reilly, who resigned May 29. They speak to larger struggles for broadcast TV, as ratings trend down and hits become rare. In many ways, Fox is now the poster child for possibility.
In three seasons, the network has fallen from No. 1 in the 18-to-49 demographic to narrowly avoiding No. 3 status -- thanks only to a Super Bowl boost. No matter the choice to replace Reilly, 51, he or she will be tasked with revving a fatigued and slightly unfocused engine. This means letting go of once-dominant American Idol and at least in part staying Reilly's course of risk-taking. After consulting scores of industry sources, here are THR's five pieces of advice:
1. FIGURE OUT THE REALITY STRATEGY
Nothing can turn around a network faster than a broad, unscripted hit such as The Voice, which catapulted NBC from last to first place in three years. "When you have that one show that elevates your overall prime, it helps build momentum with advertisers and their clients," notes Sam Armando, senior vp and director of strategic intelligence at SMG. With The X Factor a pricey bomb and Idol a sinking ship (down another 25 percent this season), Fox needs a new hit quickly. Unscripted czar Simon Andreae is banking on social experimentation (big-swing Utopia kicks off with three hours a week in the fall), live events (Evel Knievel homage Jump of the Century) and the very playful I Wanna Marry "Harry" -- this is the guy who launched Discovery's Naked and Afraid. The only reality worry that Reilly's heir won't inherit is unrealistic Idol expectations. Reilly's performance often was compared to Idol's boom years. But after 13 seasons and three years of steep declines, hopes for reviving TV's former "Death Star" are dim. How long can it continue before Ryan Seacrest's and the judges' paychecks eclipse ad revenue? It's clear the show won't last forever.
2. SWING OPEN YOUR DOORS
Studio execs and reps have expressed frustration with Reilly's reluctance in recent years to get more involved in the development process, rarely sitting in on pitches. As one Fox exec puts it, Reilly had grown exhausted by the dysfunction of the broadcast business, which consumed him for more than a decade, first at NBC then Fox since 2007. "He was constantly putting on Band-Aids," says the insider, but never able to fix the problem. Reilly alluded to this in an exit memo to staff: "Staying fresh and looking forward is part of why I feel the timing is right for me to turn the page now." His replacement needs to roll out the lot's welcome mat to court talent.
3. BROADEN THE COMEDY BRAND
Rumblings out of the upfronts suggest that Fox Networks Group CEO Peter Rice is fed up with the state of Fox's half-hours, critically favored but often unable to crack a 2.0 rating. Reilly's replacement gets a niche roster, including New Girl, barely a top 10 comedy entering its fourth season, and the low-rated Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project. Add to that only one new fall addition, with multiple sources noting that Fox's comedy development crop underwhelmed. Broadening the comedy brand will be key to pleasing Rice and newly involved 21st Century Fox co-COO James Murdoch. Given the state of broadcast comedy, a smash hit is not required. But the genre needs to be viable.
4. KEEP INNOVATING
Does pilot season have to die? That's up for debate. But Reilly's cable-esque push for shorter, straight-to-series orders stands as broadcast's biggest play to slow its slide into irrelevance. It would be a shame to step backward, especially since CBS' consistency under Leslie Moonves and NBC's recent success leave both networks less likely to take those chances. "There are other scrappier systems, beginning with cable and extending into some of the new services, that I think move in a contemporary fashion," Reilly told THR on May 29. "I felt like broadcast needed to catch up." The success or failure of Reilly's Gracepoint, Hieroglyph, Wayward Pines and Last Man on Earth, all of which bypassed conventional routes to air next season, shouldn't dictate the network's future willingness to innovate. "The irony is, the general sentiment was that the Fox slate was good, probably best of the four networks," notes Dave Campanelli, senior vp and director of national broadcast at Horizon Media. "So advertisers are, generally speaking, fairly optimistic about Fox's 2014-15."
5. CHALLENGE YOURSELF
Some of the biggest victories of the past year have come in unexpected places, so Fox needs to widen the target. NBC chief Bob Greenblatt was laughed at for staging The Sound of Music Live! -- until 18.5 million viewers watched, then Reilly ordered copycat Grease. And CBS, which launched its most ambitious drama of 2012-13 in the middle of summer with Under the Dome, was rewarded with the highest-rated scripted debut on the Big Four that season. "It's about having the ability to bring something a little unique," notes Armando. "There's a big appetite for that right now."
Marisa Guthrie and Lacey Rose contributed to this report.