Fall — and Fate — Are a Mystery for Fox (Analysis)

The shows and the scheduling were done by someone not in that job anymore. It's too late to make massive — or possibly even minor — course corrections. It's wait-and-see time.
"Gotham" will have to be big for Fox.

Well, that was pretty easy.

Peter Rice, CEO of the Fox Network Group, came to TCA on Sunday and effortlessly nailed the executive session (which some are terrified to do, while others approach it as an exercise in being vague, etc.) and answered the questions he could with frankness and mostly took a stab at others where he didn't want to say for certain either way. It was surprisingly informative for a session that could have been 45 minutes of Rice saying we'd have to ask Dana Walden and Gary Newman, who were hired to run the Fox network about five minutes earlier and thus weren't available to answer our questions.

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The hard part, of course, is trying to figure out whether anything that Rice said really matters — the network is locked and moving forward on a course charted by a man who isn't there anymore. We don't even know whether Walden and Newman have ideas in mind. But the reality is the fall will look pretty much the way departed entertainment president Kevin Reilly shaped it, as will midseason — at least the early parts. And despite having a year-round schedule, it would be difficult for Walden and Newman to dramatically rework much of anything even late in their first season.

Which is both good and bad.

It's good for them because nothing is their fault yet. Technically, the duo get a free pass until next July, when they will be telling assembled scribes at the Television Critics Association press tour what their new fall season is. Sure, the TCA en masse will see them in six months in Pasadena, but even then Walden and Newman can't really be held accountable.

The bad part is that Fox needs to do better — and quickly. It does have buzz building around the drama Gotham and the network is hoping that Red Band Society can bust out, but it's not exactly a schedule that screams hit machine. There are some real hurdles ahead.

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Mondays look good, with Gotham leading into last season's hit Sleepy Hollow, though that means Gotham will have to self-start. Tuesdays — and Fridays — are far more worrying, as the reality series Utopia, a "social experiment" where 15 strangers try to start a new society, gets an hour on each night after a confusing three-night launch (Sunday, Sept. 7, Tuesday, Sept. 9, and Friday, Sept. 12). Given that most people are prone to sampling new series before adding them to their DVR lineup, Fox is asking viewers to kick off Utopia's first week by committing to three hours on three different nights — that's just a huge gamble. If Utopia fails to launch, it craters two different nights in the fall. So, yeah, worrisome.

On Friday, Fox follows Utopia with an encore airing of Gotham. And while this cable-style play for additional viewers might bring in some new eyes, it also looks suspiciously like not trying. If Utopia goes south, Fridays are then adrift completely.

Other worries? Maybe it's true that flow on a schedule matters less in our DVR-oriented, time-shifted universe, but on Wednesdays Fox has Hell's Kitchen leading into the teen-centric Red Band Society, which is kind of a head-scratcher.

On Thursday the ever-solid Bones leads into Gracepoint, the American remake of Broadchurch, the acclaimed British drama. If that gets business, Fox might find some real stability there.

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Lastly, Sundays are given a slight shake-up as live-action comedies Brooklyn Nine-Nine — one of the best comedies on television that deserves a wider audience — and freshman entry Mulaney join the former "Animation Domination" block (Bob's Burgers, The Simpsons and Family Guy remain).

Midseason is a much stronger time for Fox, but it's also important to get out of the gates fast in the fall and there are legitimate questions about that schedule. After pinch-hitting admirably on Sunday, Rice will give way soon to Walden and Newman. Based on sunk-costs of promotion, it's not like the new duo will flip-flop a bunch of shows on the schedule so, again, what they can control in the early going is very limited.

But, on Sunday at least, Fox averted that "who's flying the plane?" panic that might otherwise have been present without an executive panel. We'll see in September if Reilly's outgoing schedule and shows are a gift or a curse and Fox can exhale.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine