Fox Networks Boss Peter Rice on Kevin Reilly's Departure, Quest for Hits (Q&A)
Fox Networks Group CEO Peter Rice survived his turn before the press.
Thrust into the hot seat a week after appointing new heads of his broadcast network (Dana Walden and Gary Newman, both of whom had prior engagements), Rice was called upon to discuss the new consolidated structure and what's next for a cadre of Fox series, including Bones, 24 and American Idol. What was not addressed during his stop at the Television Critics Association's semi-annual press tour Sunday was the departure of former Fox Broadcasting chairman Kevin Reilly and the holding pattern that the network has been in in the month and a half since.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Rice, often referred to in industry circles as "Rupert [Murdoch's] golden boy," postpanel to inquire about the Reilly timeline as well as a clearer look at how everything will — or should — play out under newly formed Fox Television Group CEOs Walden and Newman. The only topic that remained off-limits on and off stage was his bosses' failed $80 billion bid for Time Warner.
Let's start with Kevin Reilly's departure, which has left you without a network head for nearly two months. Why do it that way?
It was slightly unconventional how we did it, and that created a lot of speculation. He was really eloquent about why he chose to step down. In talking about it with him, traditionally someone steps down and you immediately announce somebody else, which means in the time leading up to it a whole bunch of conversations have been going on. I didn't feel that that was respectful to Kevin, and we talked about that. We thought, "This is the time when the schedule will be set: The shows aren't shooting yet, development season hasn't started."
He's a fantastic executive and he's been at Fox and before that FX, and he has done great things, and I wanted him to be able to do it in a way that didn't have a whole bunch of speculation leading up to it. It left us in a place of truly not knowing who was going to run the network and that led to the conversation with Gary and Dana. That's not an easy decision, because you're changing the structure of the company beyond just hiring somebody to run a network. We had those conversations, and we ultimately decided it was the right thing to do.
The studio is a very lucrative asset, significantly more so than the network, which is why many have wondered whether it makes sense to take Walden and Newman's attention away from it. What kind of conversations were had about that?
They're both really valuable in different ways. The network is the engine of the network group. The network group is a very profitable business and that's our biggest platform. [As for] the studio, they've built a really thriving, strong branded studio that brings talent in, but they also need a platform to launch their shows. So as we talked about it and thought about the various alignments, we're not a network that had an in-house studio that's now choosing to try to sell to other people, which everybody is doing now. We're a company that's always been within the same big Fox roof and we're just choosing to align them closer now. There's so much competition for talent that it works for the studio to be able to say, "Come to us, and we'll sell to everybody." The network was at a little bit of a disadvantage not having a talent magnet. So when there were less networks and less places for people to go, it was easier to be reactive and to wait for people to bring you their projects and then choose. I think it's hard now to do that, whether it's digital companies like Netflix and Amazon and Hulu or cable networks, they're all trying to produce more in-house.
So, how will it work? Dana passes on a project for Fox, and then calls up Nina Tassler at CBS or Jennifer Salke at NBC and says, "I don't want it, but you should take it"?
Yes, I think she does. I think she's been doing it for 20 years, so I think she has a relationship where she's been selling and I don't think you can be mutually exclusive. I think if you are really trying to say, "I only want to buy from myself, but gee, I'd love you to buy some stuff from me," that's not going to work. You're living in a culture where networks and studios do have interrelations, because they're selling and buying from each other, and I think if you want somebody else to buy from you, you have to be willing to buy from them. That will evolve for Gary and Dana over the next couple of years. But we're thrilled that we have Modern Family on ABC and Homeland on Showtime and I could then go down through the list of shows. It's important for us to keep doing that; it's important for us with our partnership with the creative community to keep doing that. And the network will benefit from being able to go to the creative community and really talk about, "This is what the network needs."
I have to imagine the No. 1 goal at this stage is less about owning your shows than it is about turning around the network. And if that's the case, you'll need to take hits from wherever they come, no?
It's launching hits. I wouldn't necessarily say it's more important than other things. From the network perspective, the best thing for us, as it would be for CBS or NBC or ABC, would be to have a big hit on our own network that's produced by our own studio. The second-best thing is to have a big hit on the network produced by somebody else and the equal second-best thing is to have a big hit on somebody else's network that we own. We'll continue to do both, and I think we're well-positioned to do that because it's Gary and Dana and because 20th is so strong.
Kevin was open about challenges of the broadcast medium. How much faith do you have in being able to have a really strong broadcast network again and being able to lure back producers who think cable is a more alluring, freer place to be?
I'm very confident about it. I think that we can and will. A broadcast network today is different from the way it was 10 years ago or a generation ago. A lot of that has to do with measurement. Sleepy Hollow, 20 million people watched that. If 20 million people watched Sleepy Hollow live, can you imagine the cultural response to it in terms of how it was perceived and written about? The premiere of 24 was, out of the nine seasons, the second biggest one. It certainly wasn't reported in that way, because people are watching differently. It doesn't mean that they don't experience it as a big broadcast show. I think we're in a transition phase for that. It's still the biggest platform and therefore people make things because they want to share their stories, and we have one of the biggest platforms to help people share their stories in 120 million homes. I'm excited about that. Now, some people have stories which are [better] for a different platform because they have a different story to tell. There are certainly language and nudity issues which we can't cover in our S&Ps. But if you want to make a big show that reaches the broadest possible audience, then you'll come to broadcast.
What kinds of conversations have you had with Gary and Dana about what you'd like to do differently going forward? Anything you'd like to see on the schedule that's not already there?
They come at it from a position of being very close to the creative community and not feeling that you can order it up like a pizza. I think you have to find people you really believe in that you want to bring to the network and then talk to them about the kinds of shows that they want to make. We want it to be a very broad place. One of the great things about Fox is the many, many different genres we've had hits in over the years, and I think that we want to continue doing that. I don't think you can be prescriptive about it.
You seem more optimistic about the idea of having big, broad comedy hits than Kevin did in recent years. Fair to say you'd like to move away from Fox's niche comedy brand?
I love the comedies we have on. I think they're really smart and I think if you cumed those audiences and changed them into ratings, New Girl would have 7.5 million people watching. It's the highest concentration of 18-49. You'd have a rating somewhere between 4 and 5, and no one would be sitting here saying it was a niche show.
Fox failed to add too many new comedies to the schedule in May, and it was my understanding that you weren't interested in adding what appeared to be more narrow fare.
[Shakes his head.] We've set a schedule where we looked at what we thought fit and what was compatible with each other. I don't think it was a reflection of either being too niche or not too niche; it was looking at the shows and deciding these were compatible on this schedule that we want to have.