Critic's Notebook: Ignore the Spin — It's Not Business as Usual at Fox

Dana Walden and Gary Newman getty - H 2016
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I can think of very few negatives anymore for skipping the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, but having a chance to look curiously, with a hint of disconsolate wonder, at the face of Michael Thorn is one of them.

Thorn is the new entertainment president of the Fox broadcast network, and it would be entirely too easy to use a Titanic joke here when the fact of his current and future state dredges up images of a kid who finally gets that coveted invite to a party — over at the cool kids' house — only to arrive and find that everyone is crying because the cool kids' parents sold the house and it's being gutted.

In fairness, Rupert Murdoch is not selling Fox to Disney, but that's only because he can't, by law. Otherwise, yes, he would have. And don’t rule out a stand-alone sale of Fox, or "New Fox," as it is unfortunately being called currently, sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Disney already has a broadcast network — ABC — and it can't own another one. So Murdoch is keeping it. But he sure did gut it. Murdoch sold the studio that supplies most of Fox's shows — 20th Century Fox TV — to Disney, along with the movie studio (if that information is important to you, because you're a person into, say, films).

This is a TV column. Let's focus on that.

Making content, at least until he proves otherwise by launching a separate studio with the profits of this current industry-redefining sale, doesn't seem a high priority for Murdoch, but it's absolutely essential for Fox broadcasting and whatever future Thorn, whom I've never met, has there.

You may be wondering why I'm not talking about Dana Walden and Gary Newman, who have been running Fox since 2014 but are going into their 19th year together as heads of the 20th Century Fox TV studio, which is, to put it mildly, the better part of their jobs. Running a studio is fun and creatively varied, and they've done a wonderful job in that capacity. Running a broadcast TV network is like getting slapped in the face every day or forced to push a boulder up a hill every day while your friends say they can't come over and watch you do it because they'd rather Netflix and chill.

Walden and Newman played dutiful soldiers last week on the opening day of TCA and stayed positive while saying very little (the cumulative total of their comments did, however, put them ahead of ABC's entertainment president, Channing Dungey, who continued her impressive undefeated streak of saying absolutely nothing of substance four days after them). Look, Walden and Newman deserve credit for even getting up on stage — if they're not out the back door and over to Disney or on to better things (Amazon Studios?) in short order it will be a shocker. That doesn't mean Thorn is going to run Fox, but he might be the last person to see the door swinging on its hinges when Walden and Newman flee, so I would have liked the opportunity to feel sorry for him even temporarily, in person.

(For the record, last summer I stopped feeling sorry or even saying many snarky things about broadcast TV presidents once they said the industry was, in fact, healthy, and they were monetizing their content even though fewer people see it and even fewer people see it right away — but Thorn's untimely ascension does seem to have hints of tragedy about it.)

The Disney-Fox deal is more than just a blockbuster; it's a deal that resets the landscape in the media world, and the fallout and unknown ramifications are things we'll be talking about for at least another year. It was a little disappointing to not be at TCA for the Fox and FX part of it (happy to not be there for the ABC part of it, given Dungey's penchant for adding nothing), but news coming from Pasadena didn't add much clarity; the percentage of TV critics who actually cover the industry is astonishingly low these days, so ground-level perspective that un-spun the corporate clichés was hard to come by. But the Fox situation isn't all that hard to decipher.

It's bad. Really bad.

For starters, with no studio to funnel shows to the network, Fox will be in trouble in the near future. Newman and Walden were quoted as saying that vertical integration — the bible for virtually all broadcast networks (make your own shows and own them; demand and receive advantageous co-owner stakes on series you pick up that aren't your own) — was, sure, a thing they once did but now, who knows, maybe it's a good opportunity for independent producers to have a better chance to get their shows on a network (which I hope was met with side-splitting laughter from the assembled, but I fear wasn't).

That means that in the near future, Fox could be comprised mostly of unscripted reality shows and sports. That's not a recipe for success. Sure, as mentioned above, there's nothing stopping Murdoch from restarting a studio but, well, that does seem to ignore the fact that he sold two really successful ones to Disney in whatever downsizing/reinvention thing he's got going for his progeny. He doesn't seem to be betting on scripted content.

And yes, independent content providers could see a gold-rush opportunity to sell to "New Fox," but depending on when (and, yes, if) the deal is approved, the timing could put Fox execs (those still there) in a quandary of cobbling together a schedule of existing series and lame-duck-season purchases from 20th Century Fox TV while taking meetings with independents who will then be asked with serious audacity to give up some ownership stakes (to a network that might not be able to surround that content with anything that works, thus reducing its value). What's to stop independent content shops from waiting to see what "New Fox" looks like in practice?

Or what if, while we're hot-stoving those scenarios, Murdoch just sells the Fox network to some other media company? If he's more interested in sports and news channels — the other franchises he owns and didn't sell to Disney — this could happen. Also, any speculation that goes beyond the fact that Fox doesn't own a studio to produce content is, don't kid yourself, truly overthinking it.

That's why Walden and Newman saying it was "business as usual" at Fox wasn't entirely accurate. The dummy light on the Fox network dashboard just lit up — it's low on gas. It can chug along for a little bit — a year for sure. Executives who haven't fled by then — maybe Thorn, fresh-faced and promoted over from the studio during the summer (D'oh!), as one of them — will have to figure out what legacy Fox brands now owned by Disney will be allowed to stay on Fox past their current commitments; an eye must be cast on Murdoch's scripted desires, if any, while looking for new content from independents; and the other eye will glance about, gleaning the trades for rumors of a sale. What Fox will look like as a broadcast network in the next 12 to 18 months is both a wild and weird guess at this point, but focus intently on whether Murdoch drops hints one way or the other about replacing the TV studio he sold. That's absolutely the first key clue.

If he doesn't flip Fox before that and you don't hear anything positive about impending studio plans (and you likely won't), then "New Fox" will more than likely be "Dead Fox."