With Fox Deal Closed, Disney Now Has TV Studio Filled With All-Stars

While Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy have departed for Netflix, the newly launched Disney Television Studios boasts showrunners like Dan Fogelman, Steve Levitan, Seth MacFarlane, Alex Gansa, Lee Daniels, Kurt Sutter, Ilene Chaiken and many more.
Daniels: Courtesy of Sunshine Sachs; Getty Images (3)
From left: Lee Daniels, Dan Fogelman, Seth MacFarlane, Steve Levitan

Disney's $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox assets — including 20th Century Fox TV — has created a massive TV studio with a roster of All-Star showrunners now housed under one centralized roof at the newly launched Disney Television Studios.

With the deal officially having cleared all major regulatory approvals, Disney's new mega-studio is designed to help position the media behemoth to better compete in the streaming era. Disney is already planning to launch its direct-to-consumer Netflix rival, Disney+, in the fourth quarter of 2019 and plans to ramp up originals for that platform.

With the Fox acquisition official, newly appointed Disney Television Studios president Craig Hunegs — who joined the company March 5 after a 20-year tenure at Warner Bros. TV — will now oversee showrunners based at ABC Studios, cable- and streaming-focused ABC Signature, newly acquired 20th Century Fox TV and Fox 21 TV Studios. The respective executives at those studios — ABC Studios' Patrick Moran; 20th TV's Jonnie Davis and Howard Kurtzman and Fox 21's Bert Salke — will all report directly to Hunegs. The latter exec reports to Dana Walden, now officially chairman of Disney TV Studios and ABC Entertainment. Former Fox TV Group chairman Walden reports to former 21st Century Fox president Peter Rice, who is chairman of Walt Disney Television and co-chair of Disney Media Networks.

Rice, Walden and Hunegs now have a combined roster of A-list showrunners to help better prepare Disney for the streaming era at a time when content ownership is becoming increasingly important. The showrunner influx comes as the market for established hitmakers is at an all-time high, with many experienced talents scoring eight- and nine-figure overall deals thanks largely to Netflix for driving the market up with $100 million and $300 million deals, respectively, to Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy.  

Among the showrunners joining the Disney family from 20th TV are This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, whose overall deal is up at the end of the season. Fogelman (Work It, The Neighbors) actually left ABC Studios for 20th TV back in 2013 after his NBA-backed basketball comedy was passed over at ABC during the Paul Lee regime. Fogelman is expected to receive multiple offers from streamers and traditional studios alike, while new ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke told THR that she already has an idea for the showrunner.

Burke also has an idea for Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan, with whom she worked on NBC's Just Shoot Me. The ABC comedy will wrap its run during the 2019-2020 broadcast season with a likely abbreviated run. Levitan's overall deal expired in July 2018 and he had been vocal about wanting to distance himself from the company that also owned Fox News. Levitan had been waiting to see how the Disney-Fox deal shook out before he went out into the marketplace for a new deal. With longtime collaborator Walden — with whom he developed Modern Family — now at Disney, it's not out of the question that he would stay put at the new mega-studio, provided the money is competitive.

Then there's Family Guy mastermind Seth MacFarlane, who is perhaps the most interesting showrunner moving to Disney from his longtime home at 20th TV. MacFarlane — who also created, stars in and exec produces Fox's live-action dramedy The Orville — is under his current overall deal until June. Sources note that MacFarlane has several suitors, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Sony who all would love to have the braintrust behind a multiple-billion-dollar franchise under their roof. Animation continues to be a hot genre, with Netflix among the outlets heavily investing in the space. The streamer recently set up its own animation studio to eliminate the costly process of outsourcing physical animation — a process that MacFarlane is well aware of given his experience on Family Guy. The big burning question is if a showrunner of MacFarlane's ilk fits under the Disney brand, and if so, how the Mouse House would best utilize a snarky talent who isn't afraid to be controversial. Family Guy — like The Simpsons and Bob's Burgers — remains a massive property, with all three shows generating billions of dollars for 20th TV. All three series are set to return next season. For his part, MacFarlane has also been outspoken about distancing himself from Fox News. Disney would certainly have to pony up a nine-figure deal to keep him in the fold, which, given his interest in both Family Guy and The Orville, would seem worth it. (Bob's Burgers creator Loren Bouchard — who also has animated series set up at Apple, Netflix and Amazon — quietly renewed his 20th TV deal a year or so ago.)

Other 20th TV producers now housed at Disney include Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who exec produce Fox's Bless the Harts, one of two straight-to-series animated comedies in the works as the newly independent broadcast network prepares for a potential future without Disney assets like The Simpsons, Family Guy and Bob's Burgers. (Should animated series like The Simpsons change networks, Disney could score new billion-dollar broadcast, cable and streaming pacts.)

Lee Daniels (Fox's Empire, Star) is also moving under the Disney tent after he re-upped his deal last May. Sources note that renewals for series owned by 20th TV that are housed at Fox — like Empire, Star, 911 and The Resident, among others — have been held up by the Disney deal. The new Fox Entertainment broadcast network will now own little to none of its primetime offerings and have to work out renewals with Disney.

Other big names based at 20th TV who are now entitled to Disneyland passes include Howard Gordon (Showtime's Homeland), Matt Reeves (Fox's The Passage), Danny Strong (Fox's Empire, Proven Innocent), Jake Kasdan (ABC's Bless This Mess, Speechless, Fresh Off the Boat), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Eva Longoria and Marc Platt (Fox's Grease Live), who could figure into Burke's plan for more live events (and a potential original musical).

Then there's the FX Productions crew, who also are now Disney employees. FX CEO John Landgraf will gain additional financial resources to increase scripted originals with his roster of top producers including Mayans MC creator Kurt Sutter (who re-upped in January 2018), Noah Hawley (Fargo), Donald Glover (Atlanta) and Stephen Falk (You're the Worst), among others.

Add the above talents to an impressive roster at ABC Studios/ABC Signature that already includes Carlton Cuse (Lost), Reese Witherspoon (Hulu's upcoming Little Fires Everywhere), John Ridley, Regina King, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis and Ellen Pompeo, among others.

So while ABC Studios and 20th Century Fox TV saw top showrunners Rhimes and Murphy, respectively, depart for Netflix, the new Disney Television Studios is now better-positioned to absorb those losses as the company loads up on content for its streaming platform and the future.