Failure Analysis: The Firing of Kevin Reilly

Tim Goodman on what the former Fox entertainment chairman did right and wrong and whether he could have held on longer. Also: Who wants that job anyway?

Everybody who had Fox’s Kevin Reilly being fired before ABC’s Paul Lee, raise your hand.


And in another example of how strangely unpredictable the television industry is, the long-tenured, well-respected Reilly is out, a sign that Fox has no interest in being complacent or finishing deep in the shadow of first place.

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And more proof that no matter what you’ve done in the past or what vision you can articulate with aplomb, nothing matters unless the audience says it matters. And Fox’s audience was slow to warm up to newer offerings and too willing to let go of past hits (specifically American Idol). That was apparently enough for Peter Rice, chairman and CEO of Fox Networks Group. For his part, Reilly went out with grace and, in turn, Rice applauded Reilly’s successes.

But the network is now on the hunt for a new entertainment chairman a little more than a month before it faces the country’s television critics and reporters. That entertainment chief, like so many before him, will be operating on someone else’s schedule and thus getting a free pass for a year, until the heat will get cranked up exponentially.

Enjoy that year, whoever replaces Reilly – it’s the last decent sleep you’ll get.

(By the way, I thought it was smart then, but Lee's clever play at TCA, in the wake of Reilly's firing? Genius.)

Which makes you wonder – who wants these network jobs anyway? Here you have an entire monolithic structure built on the premise of broadcasting when the market has made clear that no such thing exists in the modern era. With outlandish operating expenses, a weekly schedule that demands an unwieldy amount of content that the market can’t support, antiquated industry procedures that need revamping, lost brand loyalty from a diffused viewer base and never-before-seen levels of effective competition from cable and streaming platforms – who says yes to that job?

Which is why no tears should be shed for Reilly. He’s proven, he’s smart, he’s in demand. If there’s a cable channel out there looking to revamp or compete harder, you should have already reached out to Reilly by now.

As for Reilly’s replacement at Fox, I pray that FX’s John Landgraf – the smartest guy in the room at pretty much any industry confab – doesn’t feel tempted (or God forbid, obligated by the Fox hierarchy) to take this job. No good can come from that. He honestly is too smart for the broadcast game as it's currently being played.

Who wants to work in an environment where you’re basically guessing all the time, going against your gut because “testing” shows Middle America is going to love this comedy or that drama? The network model is a dinosaur and, yes, I get that some bright thinker is needed to come in and revolutionize the industry a la Steve Jobs and make it relevant and efficient again. That’s a challenge some people may want.

Q&A: Fox's Outgoing Chairman Kevin Reilly on His Next Steps, Rumors, Pilot Season's Future

But look at Reilly – his last bold pronouncement was stating that pilot season is antiquated and doesn’t work and that Fox would be bypassing it and reimagining how to better produce shows on a year-round basis.

And now he’s available for a round of golf.

Fixing broadcast can be done – but likely at one’s own peril. Network chief has always been a mug’s game, a short-term stint that ends 100 percent of the time in being fired and forced to announce that you’re hanging out a shingle and getting into the content business.

That’s not to say that Reilly did everything right. He was spotty about comedy, and the network itself has a long history of giving up too quickly on or poorly scheduling and promoting comedies with potential (Enlisted, Surviving Jack), while overdoing it on others that were clearly awful (Dads). But nothing in that job is black and white – so Reilly gets credit for trying to nurture New Girl and The Mindy Project. He also is responsible for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which was a freshman sensation and a nice addition to the stable.

The tough part is that broadcast execs still think every comedy should get The Big Bang Theory numbers (which is probably, aside from the Seth MacFarlane connection, why Reilly went with Dads). The belief is that if you stick with struggling and/or “niche” comedies, then you’ll be NBC on Thursday night. And nobody wants that. But it’s incredibly hard to launch big, broad comedy hits. Though Reilly wanted to get Fox into the multicamera comedy business, he couldn’t.

He also made some dubious decisions in the drama arena. A show like Almost Human, since canceled, could have used some nurturing – after all, the audience clearly showed, by embracing Sleepy Hollow, that they wanted something different. They didn’t want something dour, like Rake. And they didn’t want something stupid and predictable, like The Mob Doctor or Gang Related.

On those – and other examples – he should have known better. That’s on him, since it’s a development issue. And in some cases a long-standing development issue.

And yet Reilly’s downfall, like other entertainment chiefs before him, is probably linked to relying too much on something that works and holding on to it for too long while being unable to duplicate its success. For example, Fox is littered with Gordon Ramsay series to the point of ridiculousness. But if you can’t do better, do you just do more? Where American Idol was once the Death Star of singing competition shows, its long slow decline brought the network down with it, especially when The X Factor couldn’t duplicate the magic.

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Plus, once a powerhouse in the reality game, Fox is now reduced to I Wanna Marry "Harry." This element can’t be underestimated.

Anything else? Well, MacFarlane didn’t do Reilly any favors with Dads or forcing Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey onto the schedule (no matter how admirable). But what was Reilly supposed to do – predict that Idol would become a soap opera/nightmare among the judges? Kill it when it was still doing decently well? Was he supposed to say no to the idea of The X Factor with Simon Cowell? When someone like MacFarlane helps prop up the network, do you say no to The Cleveland Show or Dads or Cosmos when there is now considerable might behind him? Maybe you do. To all of it. I would suggest those are unwinnable battles either way and that Reilly’s development of comedy and drama shows – good and bad – are where to look when judging legacy.

But second-guessing is easy. Programming a broadcast network is hard. And maybe, just maybe, impossible.

Twitter: @BastardMachine