Fox Bosses on Possible Animation Expansion, 'America's Most Wanted' Revival

Michael Thorn_Rob Wade_Split - Publicity - H 2020
Brian Bowen Smith/FOX; Joe Viles/FOX

A season and a half into its life as an independent network, Fox has produced one breakout hit in The Masked Singer, has promising pieces in the holdover drama 911 and the rookie Prodigal Son and is expanding its animation lineup — possibly beyond Sunday nights.

It's also attempting to reshape the way it does business in what president of entertainment Michael Thorn calls "the most competitive marketplace of all time."

"When you're a talent-driven company, how do you get those voices — especially without a vertically integrated studio, how do you continue to be partnered with the best of the best?" Thorn told The Hollywood Reporter. "I feel like we've expanded that brand of the renegade network in how we approach getting talent."

Thorn and Rob Wade, head of alternative entertainment at Fox, spoke to THR about preparing for the inevitable end of flagship animated series The Simpsons and Family Guy, why it was important to establish an in-house unscripted studio and trying to move away from the typical development cycle.

Fox has ordered four animated series in the past year, most recently the Clea DuVall-Sharon Horgan comedy Housebroken, and has renewed the fall entry Bless the Harts for a second season. Fox Entertainment also acquired the animation house Bento Box (Bob's Burgers) in August and wants to keep pushing into the genre, which Thorn calls "part of our DNA" at the network.

"We have talked about even adding another hour block of animation somewhere on our schedule," said the exec. "We don't have anything specific yet, but we have talked about expanding it. The other part of that is right now we have our [long-running] shows for a while, but we know we're not going to have them forever. We'd be fools not to plan for their departure at some point, but there is no immediate end in sight."

On the unscripted side, Fox announced a series pickup for Masked Singer offshoot The Masked Dancer on Monday at TCA — which like its predecessor will be produced by in-house unscripted studio Fox Alternative Entertainment. The project is based on a segment from The Ellen DeGeneres Show and counts DeGeneres as an executive producer. After seeing the segment, Fox approached her about developing a series.

"It was fun," said Wade. "It wasn't so much a parody. After you watch it a couple times you realize, this really works. We had data to see that people were really consuming that video and really enjoying it, so we were like, yeah, this works. It'd be crazy not to do it."

The network's other dance show, the long-running So You Think You Can Dance, is still in limbo. Wade said he's looking at the summer schedule as a whole now but hasn't made a decision.

The exec is also looking to revive America's Most Wanted, a 25-year staple on Fox until its 2011 cancellation. The new version, also from Fox Alternative Entertainment, would feature cases from around the world.

Fox was the second network, following NBC, to launch its own unscripted unit. Wade said the vertical integration of unscripted content is a relatively new phenomenon because "there wasn't a need for it" in the past.

"You could do business with outside production companies and not own IP and from the ratings and the ad revenue from them, they would make a profit," he said. "Now ratings are down, obviously, and it is not as easy to find hit shows that are going to give you a big enough return on your investment. So you need to control the IP and look at other avenues of revenue, such as international distribution, and actually start sourcing that."

Along with Housebroken, Fox has given a series commitment to a multi-camera comedy tentatively titled Carla from former Big Bang Theory co-stars Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons. Thorn said he's trying to move away from the traditional development cycle, both in terms of timing and in terms of network-direct deals with creators, like those with The Game and Black Lightning's Mara Brock Akil and Teen Wolf creator Jeff Davis. He would also consider the script-to-series model for certain projects that's come in vogue at some cable and streaming outlets.

"There's a drama or two we have in development right now that in addition to the pilot script, we'll have a backup script or two that are under consideration for straight to series," said Thorn. "Some shows really, I think, do need to be piloted. But other shows, if you have the right voices behind the camera who have a vision and really know what the show is, there are real advantages to going straight to series — the cast you can get, and just having more episodes ready to go to help you market and launch a show in this crazy marketplace."

As for the traditional development season, Thorn said he's likely to order some pilots by the end of January, and may make a couple more off cycle.

"I don't know how many, because there are things we've bought off-cycle that probably won't be ready for that classic window," he said. "Our new head of comedy [Julia Franz] just started a few months ago, so I want to give her time to grow some [projects]. You will see some pilot orders in drama and comedy at the end of the month, but normally I'd say, 'It'll be six dramas and six comedies,' because that's what we always do. This year might be a little different. I won't know until I see the material."

Thorn said he hopes the changes to the way Fox does business, from off-cycle development to direct deals, will help foster a spirit of "nimbleness" at the network.

"That has been really exciting for the community as we've been starting to make these deals selectively," he said. "It really speaks to the spirit of how we're looking at our business. Each part of our business requires a nimbleness and re-evaluation of how we do things to help us stand out, especially in the most competitive marketplace of all time when it comes to getting talent to come to your network or platform."