New Fox Chiefs Reveal Reboot Plan: "We're Not Looking to Do Smaller, Dark Programming"
Fox TV Group chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman start the year with a loud launch ('Empire'), turn to the town's top behind-the-scenes talent (hello, Ryan Murphy) and dismiss predecessor Kevin Reilly's cable envy: "We're looking to have big, broad commercial hits"
This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's been three days since Dana Walden heard the latest tracking figures for the first big test of her tenure as co-head of the Fox Television Group, and she's anxious for an update. Empire, she informs the 16 executives seated before her and partner Gary Newman in the fifth-floor conference room of the Fox Broadcasting building, "is the priority."
With a massive marketing push already underway, expectations for the series are rising. Its principals — co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, the celebrated team behind Lee Daniels' The Butler, and Oscar-nominated actors Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson — earned it immediate credibility, and its King Lear meets The Godfather premise, about a drug dealer turned music mogul and three sons who are vying for his empire, has all the trappings of a hit. But the series, part musical, part melodrama, is by no means a sure thing. The pilot episode grapples with themes of mortality and homophobia, and the music — original tunes from Timbaland — isn't the jukebox of familiar hits that drove Glee. The most recent data suggests the series is scoring "incredibly high" intent-to-view numbers with African-Americans, a demographic that's helped make ABC's Scandal a hit, but Fox TV Group COO Joe Earley tells his new bosses in early December that it's still "a little soft" with everybody else.
If Earley is concerned, however, he's not letting on, and neither is marketing executive Laurel Bernard, who fields Walden's follow-up, "Any idea how the affiliates are feeling?" with an enthusiastic, "They're tuned up and turned on." The first single, "No Apologies," featuring Empire's Jussie Smollett, is scheduled to drop Dec. 15 — albums and concerts already are being discussed with partner Columbia Records — and the marketing, on par with this summer's multimillion-dollar Gotham campaign, is heading into overdrive. There are "influencer" screenings being held throughout the country, an ad blitz planned for Fox's NFL games, first-look specials airing on local channels and a themed light show to be staged at the Empire State Building.
From left: Henson, Newman, Walden and Howard
This is not just another highly touted TV show. When Empire premieres Jan. 7, following the launch of American Idol's 14th season, the country will catch its first glimpse of Newman and Walden's plan for turning around the beleaguered broadcaster. The longtime partners — who for 15 years have churned out critically acclaimed network hits, including 24, Glee and Modern Family, as heads of studio behemoth 20th Century Fox Television — were given oversight of the Fox Broadcasting Co. in late July, and effectively anointed the saviors of the network. Though it was their predecessor, Kevin Reilly, who ordered Empire, which sources peg at roughly $3.5 million an episode after tax breaks, it was produced by their studio, and it's representative of the bigger, bolder and, ideally, more populist direction in which they'd like to take the network.
"We don't aspire to be a cable network," Newman told me during a recent visit to Empire's bustling Chicago set, making clear that he and Walden don't harbor the same cable envy that Reilly often copped to having in the job. In place of niche comedies (The Mindy Project) and dramas that could have been pitched to FX or AMC (Rake), Walden, 50, and Newman, 60, along with their newly installed entertainment president, David Madden, are eager not only to lure top producers such as Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Howard Gordon (Homeland) back to broadcast but also to replicate the audacious bets that earned them an enviable mix of accolades and mass viewership at the studio. Early efforts include an Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? reboot from Mark Burnett and a wholly original horror comedy from Murphy, along with sweeping genre plays, House-style procedurals, feel-good reality shows and family comedies in the Modern Family vein still in development. "We're not looking to do smaller, dark programming," adds Newman. "We're looking to have big, broad commercial hits."
For the fiercely competitive pair, those hits can't come soon enough. Fox shed another 16 percent of its core audience of 18-to-49-year-olds this fall thanks to a series of Reilly-ordered misfires in Utopia, Mulaney and Gracepoint; and Idol, which lost 27 percent of its viewership last season, the third consecutive year of 20-plus percentage declines, hardly is the silver bullet it once was (even Coca-Cola dropped the singing competition after 13 years). Worse, the now-fourth-place network saw its advertiser commitments fall some $200 million during the 2014 upfront, and it lacks the kind of building blocks that rival NBC had to turn itself around. But Fox veterans suggest the new chiefs have brought strong relationships along with a sense of optimism and a level of engagement that the network lacked in recent years; and the upper echelons of 21st Century Fox management, including chief Rupert Murdoch, say they're prepared to be patient as Newman and Walden help Fox try to claw its way back to No. 1. "We're pretty sanguine about the challenges," says the company's COO Chase Carey, "and the fact that it will take time."
"Most people, particularly our close friends, looked at us and said, 'Are you crazy?' " says Newman, a look of bemusement hiding the exhaustion of the past six months. " 'You have this great life running arguably the most successful studio in the business; why would you want to take on this challenge?' "
The question was — and still is — a legitimate one. Running a broadcast network in the year 2015 offers few of the rewards it once did — and many more headaches. Last year alone, viewership among the Big Four tumbled 10 percent among those under 50, and upfront commitments dropped for the first time since the recession-plagued 2009-10 season. More worrisome, younger audiences continue to abandon the medium — Fox remains the youngest of the broadcasters with a median viewer age of 48, but that's up three years from half a decade ago — and 2013 marked the first year that revenue from Internet ads beat that of network advertising.
Add to that the particular challenges of Fox, which elbowed its way in three decades earlier by being the younger, edgier and more daring alternative to broadcast (see Married … With Children) — a brand distinction that served it well until cable emerged years later with an even younger, edgier and more daring one. For much of the last decade, the network's other missteps, from the short-lived Lone Star to the costly X-Factor, were masked by the strength of Idol, which, until recently, would come roaring onto the schedule each January and rocket Fox to a first-place finish. But with age and competition come an inevitable ratings slide, and the network schedule collapsed along with it.
By the time Newman and Walden settled in, Fox was in freefall. Four of the five new fall entries had cratered; Batman prequel Gotham, a bona fide hit with nearly 11 million viewers, was the lone exception. "We were instantly on the hot seat, which was actually a little shocking to me," says Walden. Making matters worse, there was no bench of replacement shows — "I wish we worked in a business where there's 80 percent success, but we don't," notes Newman, "so you need backup programming, and there just wasn't a lot there" — and returning hits such as Sleepy Hollow had dropped considerably. The biggest problem of all, says Sam Armando of media buying firm SMGx, "They inherited a network that was void of that signature show." Without one, a quick recovery is exceedingly difficult. When Bob Greenblatt took over NBC, by contrast, the long-suffering network at least had Sunday Night Football and The Voice to help jump-start NBC's return to No. 1.
There were morale concerns for Newman and Walden to contend with, too, as their employee head count ballooned to about 700. Their predecessor's growing disdain for the broadcast business, punctuated by a series of public comments about the medium's poor health, had taken a toll on the staff, say several who were a part of it. Toward the end of Reilly's seven-year run at Fox, which followed three seasons at then-struggling NBC, he had stopped going to pitch meetings and was growing further detached from the creative process. "He'd been doing it a long, long time, and there was a lot of it he was tired of doing," recalls an insider, "and therefore it irritated him, so over time people learned to not bring things to him." On Nov. 4, Reilly, still a highly regarded creative executive, landed a top gig as president of cable networks TBS and TNT.
Newman and Walden shared a different outlook: Not only could broadcast still produce the biggest hits in the business, but they also could use the platform to maintain their success at the studio. So, shortly after Reilly's exit was announced in late May, they approached Carey and Fox Network Groups chairman Peter Rice about the position — not, as many assumed, the other way around.
Newman and Walden with the cast and creators of Modern Family
Their call came as a surprise to both Carey and Rice, who thought the partners had valued their independence. According to multiple sources, Rice had already started having exploratory conversations with onetime Fox chief Gail Berman about her returning to her former post, among other ideas, when Newman and Walden spoke up. "Up until that moment, it hadn't seemed like where they wanted to go," says Rice, with Carey adding: "But the minute they proposed it, it almost instantly made sense." (In late June, Rice's networks group announced that it would be partnering with Berman to launch The Jackal Group, which would produce programming across the networks.)
Read more 'Empire': TV Review
Newman and Walden's only stipulation: They come as a package or not at all. What began as an arranged corporate marriage 15 years earlier had blossomed into one of the most lucrative partnerships in Hollywood, and neither executive was interested in seeing that change. Rival executives marvel at the loyalty they have to each other, as well as the additional ground that two chiefs with complementary skill sets — he, a Yale-educated lawyer with a rich business background and a deftness for dealmaking, and she, a publicist turned executive with killer creative instincts and a formidable Rolodex — can cover.
But without an aligned network to prioritize 20th's fare, the way CBS does CBS TV Studios' programming or ABC does ABC TV Studios', they believed their studio would continue losing broadcast market share. "The other broadcast networks are very interested in owning their own content, so it raised the bar for what it takes to get on their air," explains Newman, "and at the same time, we weren't having as much success at Fox getting our shows ordered, launched and supported." Unlike their competitors' cozy studio-network ties, Fox and 20th TV had long had a frosty relationship, the byproduct of a structure that for years had the studio reporting up through the filmed entertainment division rather than with Fox Broadcasting in Rice's net- works group.
"There had been things going on that never would've happened had we worked in the networks group in the first place, like Kevin looking for his own opportunities to have an in-house production unit," says Walden, with a flash of lingering frustration. "The crazy thing to us was we were on the same lot and in very close proximity, but regardless of how many times we would have conversations or how many weekly meetings where we would sit with Kevin and Joe Earley and try to prioritize our shows together, there just was always a little bit of a feeling of independence that led to us versus them, and it wasn't productive." Earley confirms the flaws of the former setup, which had had damaging effects on the network, too: "The two companies had their own agendas, and each was looking at their bottom lines," he says, "and, frankly, I would be frustrated by that."
Everything changed in July, when Newman and Walden were named chairmen and CEOs of the Fox TV Group. "There was a collective, 'That makes sense,' " recalls WME TV head Rick Rosen of the industry's reaction, a sentiment that pleased Rice, to whom they now report. "We don't make the shows — we don't write them, we don't act in them, we don't produce them — so we have to find the best talent and have them choose to work here," says Rice, "and Dana and Gary had an unbelievable track record of identifying people, attracting them and facilitating their best work."
By all accounts, the transition at the network has been remarkably smooth, which is not to say there haven't been growing pains.
Programming executives are still getting a handle on their new bosses' tastes, say producers and agents who do business with the network, and the additional layers of leadership — Newman, Walden and Madden — have meant an adjustment, even if ultimately a welcome one. Industry rumblings about executive changes have been hard to tune out at times, too, particularly those centered on reality chief Simon Andreae, whose output, say sources, is being watched more closely after his first bet, Utopia, proved a $50 million disaster for the network. Newman and Walden insist they are more focused on programming changes than they are on personnel ones, noting that they have "no plans" to replace anyone at this stage.
New questions have arisen at the studio as well, where Newman and Walden have had to lean on a trio of executives — 20th TV's creative affairs president Jonnie Davis and dealmaker Howard Kurtzman along with Bert Salke, head of their newly merged cable studio — to step up as the pair devote more of their time to the network. Though they both say the three men were ready to assume bigger leadership roles, altering the day-to-day dynamic at a studio as stable and profitable as 20th is not without risk. Going forward, Salke will have the tall task of merging two distinctly different corporate cultures in his Fox 21 and Madden's former Fox TV Studios, while Davis tries to become the industry's studio point person in the way his bosses have been for the past 15 years. "It's a huge opportunity," says Davis, who, like Salke, has been working with an executive coach during the transition. "And I don't want to be the somebody whom they pass the baton to who drops it."
Newman and Walden, who keep his-and-her offices at both the studio and network buildings and talk constantly, even late in the evening and while on vacation with their respective families, shoot down rumors that they intend to tap a veteran to come in above Davis and oversee the studio business. And though they are pleased by the studio's performance over the past six months, they still intend to steer key decisions. On a recent December morning, the pair sat at the head of a boardroom table doling out advice to Salke and 17 others about how to handle a few cases of temperamental talent, negotiate with a high-profile actor and get the studio's prized Showtime drama, Homeland, back into the awards conversation. A few days later, Walden was down the hall in another studio meeting, this time with the 20th staff, running through the company's broadcast business as though her day-to-day hadn't changed at all. The latter lasted right up until one of her executives noted that negotiations would begin soon on another season of 20th's New Girl: "Want to start it right now?" jokes Walden, who wears the hats of buyer and seller in her new role. "It'll just take a minute. … Closed."
Their expanded role has generated some anxiety off the lot, too. The pair shrewdly reached out to each of the other TV studio chiefs within days of taking the job, inviting several of them to lunch to assure them that the network's doors would still be open to their business. But just how much business will be closely monitored by those executives in the coming months, much as their network counterparts will be watching to see how often Newman and Walden's studio brings 20th TV projects to networks other than Fox. For those keeping track, 20th currently has put pilots at all four broadcast networks, though how the pair will tackle pilot season, which is about to begin, as hands-on network executives and hands-on studio ones remains an open question. Also of interest: how the swagger that comes with running a top studio will translate to running a last-place network. "Are they prepared to do a little wooing?" wonders a rival executive.
Murphy and Walden
The partners also have made a concerted effort not to unravel too many of their predecessor's projects — as much a message to the town as it is to their own staff — sticking with Reilly's live production of Grease, among others. They did, however, step back from a Jerry Bruckheimer family thriller, Home, for which sources say a nearly $4 million pilot commitment had been made by the previous regime. But an amenable solution, to focus on another project, DC Comics adaptation Global Frequency, from Bruckheimer, with whom they were eager to work, was hashed out over lunch with Warner Bros. TV chief Peter Roth. "I think Peter was anxious about it … he didn't have any idea how we would be to deal with at the network," says Newman, who adds, "Of all the things we've been doing with outside studios, the ease with which we're working with Warner Bros. is among the most gratifying."
Back at the December meeting on the Fox lot, during a lull in the conversation about Empire's rollout plans, Walden asks her team, "Who saw the first Idol?"
A few hands shoot up. "I popped a tear once or twice," says one executive, with another voicing cautious optimism: "You can feel the camaraderie between the judges." Andreae, who oversees all unscripted fare but Idol, had watched the top 48 contestants perform at the House of Blues earlier that week and was generally pleased by what he saw: "There are some super interesting people," he reports, "and it's likely to be more of a personality contest than last year."
Walden, who has seen the first three episodes already (live shows start in mid-February), listens intently. Neither she nor Newman is under any illusion that the series is going to regain its former stature. "We're trying to be realistic in terms of trends of our business in general," she told me a few days earlier, before noting that there's still life left in the franchise. The coming season will be more focused on seasoned performers, and will feature a new mentor in Nashville music mogul Scott Borchetta. Reilly wisely had cut the forthcoming season from 55 hours to 41, but the show remains pricey — Jennifer Lopez alone pulls down $17.5 million to sit on the judges panel — and it has suffered setbacks not only in viewers but also in ad revenue (now at a reported $266,000 a spot). "I think we have to focus on the notion that the judges are aware of how high the stakes are for these people," says Walden, before adding of her goal to keep the season positive: "I really like when the judges are having fun."
Moving forward, "aspirational" is where Walden wants Fox's unscripted brand to live, a marked change from the network's early years when "nasty" drew eyeballs (hello there, Simon Cowell). "Under my partner's control, we will not do When Animals Attack, we'll do When Animals Nuzzle Up Against You," jokes Newman. Both acknowledge they have next to no experience with unscripted, save for Paris Hilton's The Simple Life and a few seasons of Beauty and the Geek, and they're still wrapping their heads around what they can and should do. Although reality hasn't yielded a genuine hit since NBC's The Voice or ABC's Shark Tank (Walden watches both), Fox has a long history with the genre, and the new regime doesn't intend to throw in the towel. In recent months, they've sat down with reality's most prolific producers, including Burnett and even the onetime king of nasty himself, Cowell, for whom the pair flew to London post-Thanksgiving to discuss a deal.
Newman, Walden, Murdoch and Homeland star Damian Lewis
They have dramatic shifts planned for comedy, too, another deeply challenged genre that the new bosses are determined to repair at Fox. "There is no need to be too cool for the room, and occasionally the prior regime was looking for comedies that felt a little narrow and cool," says Newman, who shrugs off a previously held notion that smart and broad are an impossible pairing, citing Modern Family as evidence to the contrary. Instead of the 20-something ensembles that had become Reilly's forte, the new team is focused on workplace half-hours and family comedies. Madden, who's in the vast majority of the network's pitches (Newman and Walden watch cuts that come in later), says he'd also like to see "more heart" in their half-hours, noting that past Fox offerings tended to be "a little brittle — a little joke, joke, joke."
Newman and Walden are that much more optimistic about the drama slate, for which they've been developing aggressively in two areas: distinctive genre/action series a la X-Files and Prison Break and noisy, character-based procedurals that hark back to House or newcomer Backstrom. "The first word out of my mouth with regard to our dramas should be 'entertaining,'" says Madden. "We can't be chasing characters into the abyss the way cable can." Event series will remain a focus as well, though he suggests they'll rely on built-in titles that don't require extensive marketing (another iteration of 24 is likely), and a lower-cost scripted block on Fridays is being explored.
But more important than any one genre, say Newman and Walden, is their desire to re-create the producer-oriented culture that they've fostered at their studio, where big bets are made on the visions of top creators, including Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, Cosmos), Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) and Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd (Modern Family), and the executives largely get out of their way. Both point to their recent straight-to-series order for Murphy's Scream Queens, a horror comedy starring Emma Roberts and Jamie Lee Curtis, as evidence that their mission is being realized already. "Was I going to want to do a network show next? No," says Murphy. "But for Dana and Gary? 100 f—ing percent because then there's a chance to shake it up and do something bolder."
Before long, the room turns its attention back to Empire. Walden wants to know where they are with the series' first music video. "Will it be ready in time for New Year's Eve?" she asks, eager to use the network's Pitbull-hosted live show as a launch platform. "They're trying," she's told, "but it'll be tight." The social media push? Well underway, and the barrage of cable ads aimed at Bravo's and Lifetime's female viewers is rolling out, too. "It will be our biggest multiplatform launch," adds Fox's digital chief David Wertheimer from the far corner of the conference table. "We're going to hit people really hard with: 'Watch it on television.' 'OK, you missed it on television, watch it here.' 'You missed it here, watch it there.' Just get into the show, get into the show, get into the show."
Walden lets a smile cross her face as the meeting comes to an end. "This show," she says once more before the team disperses, "is the priority."