Fox Chiefs on 'Prison Break' Revival, 'Empire' Impact and Planned Turnaround

Dana Walden Gary Newman - H 2014

Dana Walden Gary Newman - H 2014

Dana Walden and Gary Newman are one year, five days and one hour into their tenure as chairmen of the Fox Television Group.

"But who’s counting," Walden joked as she took her seat on stage at the Television Critics Association summer press tour Thursday. Though she and Newman stressed more than once that this appearance should not be misconstrued as "a victory lap," both executives used the platform to praise the network’s suite of new hits, including Last Man on Earth, Wayward Pines and, of course, Empire. "I know that some of our peers at other platforms are reluctant to give you ratings information; on Empire we will account for every last viewer, and that would be 17 million viewers on average in the L-7 window," Walden added, suggesting the No. 1 series has provided a shot in the arm to the broadcast business at large.

The pair shrewdly kicked off their executive session with a flurry of announcements, including a new drama project from Empire co-creator Lee Daniels, a two-year deal with reality star Gordon Ramsay and confirmation for the long-awaited Prison Break reboot. Doing so likely distracted the roomful of reporters from focusing on the network’s ongoing ratings woes, save for a few questions about the demise of Knock Knock, which the network pulled after two low-rated episodes. And though both Walden and Newman stressed there was still a "long way to go" with Fox’s planned turn-around, neither was forced to address the 24 percent and 21 percent slide in the 18-49 demographic and total viewers, respectively, this past season.

Here are the highlights from their 45 minutes before the TV press:

Prison Break is … Back

It’s official: the network is in development on a Prison Break event series sequel with original stars Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell. Other iconic characters will return too but they left it there, as Paul Scheuring is still busy writing the first episode and series bible. Once he’s done so, Newman suggested Fox would grant it a straight-to-series order. "It picks up the characters several years after we left them in the last season of the show," said Walden, who added of the 20th-produced series that’s performed particularly well internationally and on SVOD platforms like Netflix: "I don’t think Paul knows exactly where he’s going with the 10-episode arc, but it definitely will address some questions that were set up at the end of the series."

Lee Daniels' Empire Is Expanding

Fox is making yet another bet on Lee Daniels — and the contemporary music business arena in which he (and the network) have had great success. Walden used the TCA platform to announce his next music drama pilot, titled Star, which will be set against the music business but told from a different perspective. The Atlanta-set drama will center around three girls who come together to form a band, and will detail their rise to the top in a challenging business. While New York-set Empire is told from the point of view of music executives, Star will be done from the perspective of the artist. And though there are no Empire crossovers planned, Walden didn’t rule out the possibility down the line. 

Knock Knock, Who’s There?

The answer, it turned out, was nobody, which explains Fox’s decision to pull the Ryan Seacrest hosted live show after just two episodes. Still, Walden praised the summer series for being an "original," "big idea." That said, summer is a particularly challenging time to launch a show — particularly, as Walden noted, when Fox lacks circulation. If she had it to do over again, she suggested she’d likely schedule it in-season when the promotional opportunities are considerably stronger. What’s more, because of the live nature of the wish fulfillment show, she said, "It was very hard to explain to an audience what the show could be." Pressed again about the show’s demise later in the panel, Newman added: "It was just missing a little bit of that Fox DNA, [and] it just didn’t feel distinctive enough for our air."

(Not) All About the Binge

Fox is in no rush to adopt the binge model. Using Empire as an example, Newman noted that the show’s social media savvy fans helped make the hip-hop series a monster hit by evangelizing week to week. "Our viewers were doing a lot of marketing for us," he said in praise of the traditional rollout strategy, adding of the alternative: "When you put everything out at once, which obviously is a structure that is working very well at Netflix, you get that one big moment when you release the show — but I don’t think you get quite the same ongoing cultural impact." That said, the Fox execs are mindful of the on-demand mentality of today’s consumers, which is why they’ve been aggressive in their negotiations for stacking rights from its suppliers. In fact, Newman noted that the first season of Empire — from sister studio, 20th TV — is still available in its entirety on the network’s streaming platforms, where 500,000 viewers a week are currently watching the show.

A Future Without Idol

They had little to share about the 15th and final season of American Idol, which is still early in its planning stages, except to say that it would be treated as a farewell season with special guests likely to join. (Neither Walden nor Newman uttered original judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul by name, but it’s likely all three will make appearances as the long-running series heads to the finish line.) As for what’s next, Walden acknowledges that the network is already ramping up the development pipeline for more unscripted and scripted series to fill the many slots that Idol has long occupied on Fox’s schedule.

Event-izing, Event-izing, Event-ing

Newman acknowledge that one of his key takeaways during their first year in the post is the need to event-ize television, be that with a big guest star or high concept auspices. "You really need promotable stunts and characters to drive awareness about your shows in this incredibly competitive TV landscape," he said. That explains the planned Bones/Sleepy Hollow crossover, as well as the marquees guest stars joining their returning shows this season. Among them, Trainwreck star Bill Hader will appear in the premiere of Brooklyn Nine-Nine; Orange is the New Black’s Lorraine Toussaint will become a series regular on Rosewood; Michael Chiklis will join the cast of Gotham; and Pitbull will be among many A-list guest stars on Empire

Future of BonesWayward and More

When asked whether the forthcoming season of Bones would be the long-running series’ last, Newman kept the show's fate predictably open. The series has been a utility performer for years, even if the 20th-produced entry has been moved all over the schedule. As for summer event series Wayward Pines, Walden didn’t rule out another miniseries installment. Executive producers M. Night Shyamalan and Blake Crouch are just starting to have conversations about what that would entail, and Walden said she and Newman were "interested in hearing what they come to."

The Studio Business

Walden insisted that their strategy at studio 20th TV has not changed since she and Newman also assumed leadership of the network. Between 50 to 60 percent of the Fox schedule has historically been produced by 20th, said Walden, and that will continue. At the same time, Fox will remain in business with outside studios (ABC on Grandfathered; Warner Bros. on Gotham). She characterized the pickup and scheduling of 20th's Life In Pieces behind CBS hit Big Bang Theory next season as "a huge win" for the studio. At the same time, she also acknowledged that owning content is key in the age of vertical integration: "When you own the content you have a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of the rights," said Walden. "When you’re on a third party network it’s a little bit more complicated. Their agendas aren’t always in sync with the agendas of the content owners."