Fox News Border Backlash Puts Pressure on Sister Company’s Talent Deals

Steve Levitan's overall deal with 20th TV is up in July, while Seth MacFarlane's expires in June 2019. Both could soon be employed by Comcast or Disney — if they don’t leave for another studio in protest.
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images; John Lamparski/WireImage
Steve Levitan (left), Seth MacFarlane

The backlash against Fox News following its coverage of President Donald Trump's immigration policy is spilling over to the Murdoch-run company's entertainment divisions, and the timing is anything but ideal.

With 21st Century Fox readying itself for a major asset sale, maintaining a stable of top talent is not only optically important, but also key to its value. And yet, amid the cable network’s coverage of families being separated at the Mexico-U.S. border, at least two of 20th Century Fox TV's top producers, Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane and Modern Family's Steve Levitan, chose to distance themselves. Taking to Twitter, both voiced their embarrassment over their personal affiliation with the owners of Fox News. Levitan went so far as to say he was so repulsed by the network's coverage that he'd be parting ways with the company, though he’d later backtrack via his agency.

Other high-profile entertainers have chimed in, too, including Judd Apatow, who called on other Fox talent to express their outrage and protest over the network’s coverage. (A sampling: Tucker Carlson encouraged his viewers to trust no one but Fox News on the subject; and Laura Ingraham, whom the network has since defended, told hers that child detention centers are "essentially summer camps [or] boarding schools.") Still, many of 20th TV's top producers — including those, like Empire co-creator Lee Daniels, who are typically outspoken, especially on matters involving Trump — have opted to remain silent on the issue.

Among them: Empire co-creator Danny Strong, This Is Us boss Dan Fogelman, Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat), Al Jean (The Simpsons), Modern Family co-creator Christopher Lloyd, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon (Homeland), Brad Falchuk (911), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion), Donald Glover (Atlanta) and outgoing heavyweight Ryan Murphy. Despite requests from The Hollywood Reporter, representatives for each did not immediately respond. Some of it likely comes down to timing. Levitan, for instance, is in an easier spot to speak out given his soon-to-be-expired deal, while Daniels just struck a new pact that has the company paying him millions. 

MacFarlane’s comments — as well as his $2.5 million donation to NPR and KPCC — come as his deal with 20th TV expires in June 2019. Per multiple sources, he’d been taking meetings all over town well before the latest Fox News drama transpired. The multihyphenate is said to be high on the wish list at Netflix, which already poached 20th TV's biggest producer, Murphy, in a deal said to be worth as much as $300 million. While Levitan might not have the same output and thus the same top-dollar appeal as Murphy or MacFarlane, he did deliver a rare billion-dollar asset — on a single-camera comedy, no less — and is believed to be having his own set of exploratory conversations as his pact expires in July. Those conversations likely got more interesting following Tuesday’s comments. (Levitan and co-creator Lloyd have been vocal about the previously announced 10th season of ABC's Modern Family likely being its last, though a sale to Disney could extend the Emmy-winning comedy as the Disney-owned network would finally have an ownership stake in the show.)

With a sale still pending and the studio’s new owners still a question, many of 20th TV's top producers have opted for a wait-and-see approach. Included in the that group: Fogelman, whose pact runs to June 2019. (It’s worth noting that he left ABC Studios for a lucrative pact at 20th TV after he grew frustrated with the Disney-backed studio.) Jean, the showrunner on mega-hit The Simpsons, sees his 20th TV pact expire in July 2019. Strong's deal expires next month and he has the new Fox drama Proven Innocent set for midseason. Falchuk, who is becoming increasingly important to the studio as Murphy exits for Netflix in July, saw his deal expire in May. Lloyd's deal is up in July, and Gordon's and Gansa's are both up in May of next year. Liz Meriwether, fresh off seven seasons of Fox's New Girl, has the studio's ABC comedy Single Parents and begins production this week on the Fox pilot Bless This Mess. Her deal expired in May and, sources say, she is near a deal to renew her pact with the studio. That did not stop Meriwether from joining MacFarlane and Levitan in tweeting that she was "disgusted and furious" about the Fox News coverage. To its credit, Fox already has renewed deals with some of its big guns, including Kurt Sutter (Mayans MC), as well as Tim Minear (Fox's 911, FX's Feud) and Mike Scully (Fox's Rel).

For his part, Sutter blasted Fox News in a statement Wednesday to The Hollywood Reporter. "The political decision made by this administration was heinous," he said. "But I don’t consider what Fox airs as 'news.' It’s manipulative propaganda, run by oligarchs, delivered by puppets, to control the fearful. What I do with FX and Fox 21 is not influenced by that energy. Yes, we are all owed by the parent company, but contrarily, at FX, other artists and myself are given the freedom to tell stories that address real issues in a truthful way. I guess we just learn to live with the sad irony that our fiction is more truthful than Fox News’ facts."

While Disney's $52.4 billion deal to acquire Fox assets including FX and 20th TV (but not the Fox network) was expected to gain regulatory approval, Comcast recently offered to buy 21st Century Fox for $65 billion, igniting a bidding war with Disney. On Wednesday, 21st Century Fox will weigh in on Comcast's bid. If it accepts, Fox News will remain under the control of the Murdoch family and 20th TV's current TV series roster and valuable library — including This Is Us, Family Guy, Modern Family, The Simpsons, Sons of Anarchy and beyond — will all be included in the deal.