Fox Entertainment Execs Talk a Jussie Smollett-Free 'Empire,' Goals for a Scrappier Network

CEO Charlie Collier also addressed diversity concerns going forward on his first upfront call with the press.
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Charlie Collier

Six months into his tenure, Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier is set to meet the deep and still utterly critical pockets of Madison Avenue on Monday afternoon. But before doing so, he took a test run with the reporter community.

On a conference call ahead of the annual dog-and-pony show known as the TV upfront, where several billions are spent on 30- and 60-second spots on the broadcast schedule, the former AMC chief touted his primary goals heading into this development season: to work with the “best in the business,” to partner with a “wide array of studios” and to let the industry at large know that Fox is, as he put it, “not only open for business, but stronger than ever.”

Since he took the top job in November, Collier has been committed to pushing the Murdoch family message: Fox can still thrive without the assets, including sibling studio 20th Century Fox Television, sold to Disney as part of a $71.3 billion deal. Aiding his scrappier network, which he and his corporate bosses continually refer to as a startup (or at least one with a startup mentality), is a heavy roster of rich sports deals with the NFL, MLB and new addition WWE, which he revealed he used to look longingly at from his former cable perch.

Still, it was the fate of Empire, which will end with its upcoming sixth season, and Jussie Smollett’s role within it that garnered the most airtime during Collier's first upfront call with the press. When first asked about the embattled star and his longtime platform on Fox, Collier opted to focus solely on the show, noting that the network would be turning the final season into a "large TV event." In fact, by moving it to the Tuesday at 9 p.m. slot and announcing the upcoming season as its last, he said that it would allow the show to go out “guns blazing” and “with a bang.” When pressed a second and third time about Smollett, Collier acknowledged that while Fox has picked up his option, the network has “no plans" to have him be part of the show, though he noted that the Empire writers' room had yet to open.

The decision to have Empire conclude prompted another briefly uncomfortable exchange about Fox’s sudden lack of shows that serve as showcases for black actors, a group that until now had included Lethal Weapon, Star and Rel. Collier's first bite at the question had him noting simply that making his new network an inclusive one was an “important” and “ongoing effort” for him and his team. “The job never stops,” he said, before being questioned more bluntly about the lack of non-whgite faces on his future lineup. After touting Fox is the No 1 network in ethnic demos, he added: "The effort continues, it never stops.”

Although Collier deserves kudos for offering more time for the press to pepper him with questions than his predecessors had — forgoing an oral run-through of his new schedule, which includes scripted series from Jason Katims and Greg Berlanti — he continued to dodge many of the more hot-button issues that were raised. When asked if the decision to cut ties with Lethal Weapon had anything to do with the behind-the-scenes drama that had marred the series, for example, he chose to bypass any discussion of past cast troubles and instead noted that the last week was full of “tough choices.” The remainder of the call focused on a such subjects as the Super Bowl, for which Fox will feature fewer commercial breaks, and its emphasis on animated comedy.

Expect Collier's turn before media buyers at the Beacon Theatre later in the day to take on a vastly different tone. A skilled salesman, Collier will inevitably spend more time touting what's to come, both in terms of strategy and specific shows. 

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