TV Upfronts: 4 Takeaways From Fox's Ode to 'Empire'

Chuck Hodes/FOX
'Empire'

Dana Walden and Gary Newman embrace their megahit, make an early push for 'Scream Queens' and test the Emmy-hosting waters with Andy Samberg.

"To the Empire," Lucious Lyon crowed as Fox's clip package kicked off the network's upfront presentation Monday afternoon.

It was a fitting way to begin the Beacon Theater pitchfest, which made frequent mention of the hip-hop drama, along with a round of (deserved) back-patting for creators Danny Strong and Lee Daniels and a lively musical performance by the series' cast.

Gracing the stage for the first time, Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden joked that she and partner Gary Newman wouldn't bother boring their Madison Avenue audience with ratings and demo data — the No. 4 network posted 20 percent declines in the key demo this season, after all — except, of course, when it came to Empire, the No. 1 series on TV. That supersized audience with a 7.1 demo rating is "good for broadcast," said Walden of a point that's likely to be repeated often during the network's forthcoming negotiations with ad buyers.

Newman noted that Empire — which will be expanded to 18 episodes with a coterie of guest stars that includes Chris Rock, Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitz next season — is emblematic of the network's programming philosophy, which centers on "big concepts" and "larger-than-life characters."

In addition to a collection of male-lead comedy and genre-packed drama trailers, here are the other four highlights from the 90-minute presentation.

1. It's All About Ryan, Again
Considering guests at the Fox presentation had to pass through a living hallway of day players dressed in bloodied sorority gear, it's little surprise that Ryan Murphy horror-comedy Scream Queens was the most-plugged new series of the fall. Before even getting into the new schedule, Walden and Newman trotted out their 20th TV golden boy and nearly the entire cast (Jamie Lee Curtis and Emma Roberts included), before screening the first promo for the show they ordered straight to series seven months ago. The crowd responded well, and the three-minute spot certainly delivered on the promise of a Glee/American Horror Story hybrid, but it didn't draw as many outright laughs as half-hours Grandfathered and The Grinder.

2. Andy Samberg Is Ready for Your Emmy Snark
Anointed by his network to host Fox's 2015 Emmy telecast, Andy Samberg had five (mostly funny) minutes of cracks about the kudos and the new schedule. "When they asked me to host the Emmys, I said, 'Yes, but on one condition: that I also get to perform at this year's upfronts,' " he opened. "And here I now stand, on the same stage as countless Rob Thomas concerts." Samberg is aware of the scrutiny he'll be under — "I'm even more excited for the morning after the Emmys, when I get to go online and read all of the nice things people will write about me" — and though a few of his zingers fell flat, his comments about the network  killed. "The show Bones is back," he said of the decade-old drama. "I'm told this season will be focusing on the tibia."

3. Data Is Less Boring When Actors Talk About It
Online viewability standards have been a major point of contention in the advertising industry, and Fox used the controversy to humorous effect enlisting Rob Lowe to parody his pitchman persona in a mock TV spot. “Like so many young kids who come to Hollywood. I got into this business because I thought I could make a difference to online viewability standards,” the Grinder star said in the video. "Or you can buy crappy online video where you don't know what you're getting or you can buy Fox's premium content across platforms and get the full picture.” Toby Byrne, ad sales president for Fox Networks, touted a reorganized ad sales team that has eliminated silos with the company enabling a cross-network approach encompassing all the Fox entertainment brands and platforms, including FX and National Geographic. Returning to the online viewability controversy, he promised “three times the brand familiarity and four times the sales impact of sub-premium online content.”

4. Idol's Goodbye Is Already Awkward
After showing a montage of the network's reality programming, Newman offered a brief sendoff to American Idol, which will kick off its final season in January with host Ryan Seacrest and judges Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr. and Keith Urban returning. The show, said Newman, "has been such an extraordinary story for Fox. You could not watch television in the last 14 years without getting swept up in (Idol)." Newman promised a "huge celebratory season-long event with lots of surprises along the way" for the aging series, whose ratings continued to hit lows this past season. And when he admitted that it was "bittersweet" to be on the Beacon stage announcing that Idol is canceled, a single, feeble clap could be heard in the theater.

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