How Kevin Reilly Is Changing Up Fox's Game, and What That May Mean for the TV Industry

Kevin Reilly Summer TCA Panel - H 2013
Frank Micelotta/FOX

Kevin Reilly Summer TCA Panel - H 2013

Whenever change comes to the resistant television industry, it comes slow. Recognizing the threat of cable -- slow. Understanding multiplatform viewing -- slow. Embracing a 52-week television season -- slow. Rethinking scheduling, episode orders, financing, etc. -- super slow.

And hell, there are still a lot of elements that have shown virtually no signs of change. Kevin Reilly, entertainment chairman for Fox, is not the first to tout, call for or embrace change. But in back-to-back press tours for the Television Critics Association -- last summer and Monday in this winter's go-round -- he has raised concerns about serious flaws in the industry's rigid, aging operating manual. And by vowing that Fox is done with the antiquated "pilot season," he's putting action with words.

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A lot of people outside the industry who couldn't care less about its daily machinations but are nonetheless savvy enough to understand how resistance to change affects them on the living-room end may soon be saluting the decision made by Reilly and Fox.

Why? Because the changes Reilly and Fox are making are really and truly about quality.

To explain the main idea in the tiniest of nutshells, developing series out of the so-called "pilot season" and doing it year-round creates opportunities across the board -- getting the right actors, making sure the pilot is as perfect as possible, tweaking the structure and direction of the show, giving writers enough time to do their best work, etc.

Of all the things Reilly said at his executive session on Monday -- and he said a lot of smart, important things -- the clarity here is telling:

"I think these shows in this day and age, we can't be in the one-size-fits-all business. There shouldn't be a set order pattern. There shouldn't be a set time when we launch things. The audience doesn't watch midseason and fall season. They don't know about pilot season. They just want to watch a great show at the right time of year that's marketed to them, that they can be aware of. There are so many things, thousands of original shows competing for their attention right now, we just can't do it all at once."

He's right about that. Change is happening with a swiftness that the industry can't keep up with. And not keeping up often means lost revenue opportunities.

"We did talk about this [during the summer press tour]," Reilly said. "I'm not going to get too deep on it, but the standard Nielsen measurement is unfortunately outdated, and it is a mere fraction of the television viewing universe. I really want to commend many of you -- most of you, frankly -- whom I think really are making an effort now to bring context to those live-plus-same-day numbers. It was really a fraction of the [viewing audience]. Here's what we are seeing this season: VOD is up 44 percent. Streaming on Hulu is up 55 percent. These are for Fox shows. If you look at our total roll-up across all of the platforms, while we are flat in the Nielsen numbers, we would actually be up season to date by 8 percent once you roll up all platforms.

"So that's really the story for us," Reilly said. "And you see, show to show, some pretty dramatic lifts, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine goes from 4.5 million viewers up to 8.5 million viewers once you roll it up. Glee goes from 6.6 million to 10.0 million viewers. Sleepy Hollow went from 10 million to 19 million viewers. These are not negligible sums. This is television. This is the viewing in 2014."

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That should be the new TV industry mantra, on educational billboards everywhere: "This is the viewing in 2014." And those numbers, of course, will rise as more and more people begin to time-shift their viewing (which they do because they are overwhelmed with great options) and view it on different platforms (which will only increase each year).

Said Reilly: "Those are some pretty amazing statistics with regard to how that audience interacts with TV. Weirdly, it's almost a better and more engaged viewing experience. Of the Fox viewers who initiate a stream on Hulu, 60 percent of them complete that episode. Sixty percent, that's extraordinary, much higher than you would see in any sort of channel-surfing environment."

It's a strange world we're living in. Netflix and Hulu and Amazon are at once competitors, enemies, but also helpful partners who are introducing viewers to shows and bolstering Nielsen numbers for new seasons and creating DVD sales opportunities.

And viewers are not just watching in the coveted live-plus-same-day window, but also within 75 hours (live-plus-3) and a week (live-plus-7). Reilly went out of his way to note that the number of viewers who watch shows after the fourth day is up 17 percent, while it was up 13 percent last year. That is a healthy chunk, which will only grow. That's an audience. That's hope.

But as far as a revolution in the pilot process -- dismantling it -- the ultimate benefit is time. And time means patience, which can translate to better quality.

"We collectively have been trying to do this on Fox for a long time," Reilly said. "Many of you heard from Damon Lindelof last week in his HBO session -- Damon obviously has had a lot of network television success -- and he said something about, 'Cable is far superior to network.' He said, 'When you slow down the conveyor belt, the quality goes up.' And I agree with him, and that's what we want to do on FOX. This year, officially for the first time, we are going to be bypassing pilot season. The broadcast, development and scheduling system was built for a different era. It was built in a three-network monopoly when we had all the talent and all of the audience. It's highly inefficient."

Not everybody will embrace this idea, of course. It's hard to imagine CBS changing a formula that's working just fine for it. And Reilly did note that some forms of television work well enough on the old model. But he sounded like a tech guy who believes a millimeter smaller is better, any improvement in speed or battery life is essential evolution -- is progress worth seeking. Did Reilly have that swept-up-in-the-epiphany sound to him? He did. Which is good for viewers at home.

"You know, after the pilot season is over, we screen them and schedule them and announce them in a compressed and crazy-condensed two-week period," Reilly said. "We go to the upfront. Then they have six weeks to get into production and get on the air. Honestly, it's nothing short of a miracle that the talent is able to produce anything of quality in that environment. When they are competing, frankly, with a huge swath of cable that has a lot of flexibility in an order pattern and flexibility in when the shows can go on, cable networks are able to course correct creatively and reshoot and recast. When we do that, we are already driving into a time period. We are behind schedule. It's big news when we shut down. Every first-season show, whether it's great or whether it's in trouble, needs course correction and needs further cooking. So here's what we are going to do: I think we can create a better, more talent-friendly, more consistently creative way to do this."

How are these words different from those of any dreamer/network president from the past? Well, for starters, not many have dreamt this big. And Reilly has already put money where his ideas are; nine projects, and more coming, are already well into the development process, ahead of schedule. This has allowed Fox to revamp them if necessary, to scrap pilot progress and restart. Some shows are going into series production in March when they usually go into production in July. Others are being given a longer lead time to work out the kinks, creatively.

"At one point earlier this year, we were in production on 42 series at once, and some of those series will be airing next summer," Reilly said. "So we started way ahead of the game, and that's really what you have to do. It's not a big story for you guys when cable rolls back a premiere date. There's barely an HBO show that doesn't reshoot half of their pilot every time. And no one throws their arms up about that. That's how you make things great. So we want to have that same maneuvering ability. We don't want to be bound by an airdate and then find that we're changing the wheels at 60 miles an hour."

That should be a sentiment that gets viewers excited. Especially viewers who believe the best shows are on cable because the networks churn out so much crap. Reilly said Monday that he's a big believer in shorter orders -- 13 episodes -- for more complicated dramas. Sure, some procedurals and comedies can hum along and do 22 or 24 episodes, but others benefit from the creative team not being maxed out and under pressure to produce that old-school number.

"It's really the rare creator who can tell you where he's going to end the season of 22 episodes," Reilly said. "That's not bad. That's part of the creative exploration. But the challenge with that is sometimes really talented people, when they're sleeping four hours a night and managing a hundred-million-dollar machine with hundreds of people producing it, they can lose their way. When you're doing 13, you just feel like you've got a little bit more control of the ship."

As an example -- and to tout how things will change in the future -- Reilly talked about Fox's hit Sleepy Hollow, which has succeeded almost in spite of its scheduling (something a show can't count on forever); it has been on and off the schedule (it returned Monday night), with the gaps forcing Fox to, in essence, remind people of what happened and repromote the show.

"It's a mess," Reilly said. "People can't watch television like that anymore. They can't watch three on and one off and two on and one off and a holiday and an interruption. No one knows where it is. And believe me, that show, the producers would have liked to have 13 in a row -- so did we. It is just humanly impossible to do when you're making mini-movies every week. We were down to about two weeks' post by the end. It's just a joke. Next year, we'll have 13 in a row."

By changing the manufacturing process, if you will, Fox is creating an advantage for itself.

"Sleepy Hollow, just to that note, here's how year-round works: Most series come back. They're picked up. Even the returning series, they're picked up in the late spring. They get their feet under them again in the summer and they gear up. We will be starting next year's production of Sleepy Hollow this March. We will be months ahead of everybody else."

Reilly also firmly established the notion of a 52-week schedule, something networks have been talking about for a decade but haven't implemented in a pure form (most summer shows thus far have been unscripted or Canadian imports/co-productions or burn-offs). On Monday, Reilly made it clear that's changing at Fox -- and there's money to be made in summer even if the adage says otherwise.

"It's actually a fallacy that we've perpetuated," Reilly said, speaking for networks. "There are advertisers that want and have money to spend during those summer months. We've given them a robust slate of unscripted, but we've given them virtually no quality scripted shows. And to the extent we have, we've put them on without any marketing budget and we've told America that they're not important. So that's what we're going to change. We are going to have to break a habit, but that's where cable was built, in the summer. And there is plenty of advertising there. There's plenty of revenue to book over the summer."

As those words wafted out into the ballroom, even the most jaded among us must have perked up. It certainly felt like change -- positive change -- wasn't just afoot, but already in motion. It was, in some ways, thrilling to hear.

"I don't expect this to have an immediate impact on our advertising. What I expect it to have an impact on is a little bit more consistency," Reilly said. "A great show is going to be a great show, and a horrible show's going to be a horrible show. But a lot of them live in the middle where there's something there. And this is part of what's very frustrating. It's frustrating to you. It's something I don't like having every year. … When we stand up and we announce a schedule and we pick something, there are so many shows that have potential and there's something there and it could turn into something. But under the stress of trying to turn it around so quickly, it gets off track."

"If it stinks, you're going to get out of it," Reilly added. "And things are going to stink. It's a hard business. But sometimes things are good, but not great yet, and with a little bit more work, they can be great. There are so many examples. One of my favorites, and I give him a lot of credit for it, John Landgraf replaced the lead of Sons of Anarchy and reshot half that pilot. That great show would have never come to be if that was on network television, because we would have screened it, we would have said 'that's awful' and it would have been dead. And that's an example of things you can do when you have the maneuvering time."

With all of this change swirling about, did Reilly sound proud of himself for embracing it? Sure. But more than that he sounded relieved -- as if getting out from under the constraints of an antiquated system would make Fox shows better, which would in turn make his job easier. But Reilly is not selling a revolution (and as the first network to face critics, he wouldn't want to say his way was the best way because then he'd be a target for network president who will follow in the coming days). But he sure sounded like a man who found a plan -- one that could be an eventual game-changer.

"I'm not making declarations about what anybody else should do," Reilly said. "I'm not saying what's wrong with the industry. But, for Fox, I think we can build a more talent-friendly way of doing this, get more consistent product with more maneuverability and more scheduling and marketing flexibility."

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