Fox's Dana Walden Talks 'X-Files' Future, Reboot Fever and Silver Lining to Peak TV

Dana Walden and David Madden - Publicity-H 2016
FOX (2)

Fox TV Group co-chairman and CEO Dana Walden took the stage Monday morning to speak at the network's presentation to journalists gathered at the Television Critics Association's press tour at the Beverly Hilton for the first time without "the tall guy." (That would be her longtime collaborator and co-chair, Gary Newman.)

“No, I didn’t get a divorce,” she explained, noting that Newman was in the back of the ballroom. The network’s strategy going forward is to get entertainment president David Madden in front of the press more. (Madden, who joined Walden for the Q&A portion, will be paired with Newman for the TCA press tour in January.)

Still, Walden did most of the talking, including evangelizing the networks many fall reboots. “Every show we ordered won its way onto our schedule,” she said. The exec echoed her past talk of "rebuilding" and emphasized that the No. 3 network among adults 18-49 — Fox still has the youngest median age among its broadcast competitors, a “super young 48,” she said — is “heading in the right direction.”

In her opening remarks, Walden laid out some of the issues facing broadcast networks, which have a mandate to attract the biggest possible audience and that does not usually translate into critical buzz. “Broadcast shows have not been the flavor of the month for many of you in this room,” she said to the critics in the ballroom, adding that the explosion in content has leveled the playing field. "Now everyone is in the volume business."

Walden and Madden also discussed the latest with The X-Files, the network's comedy issues, scheduling shifts and more. Here are the main takeaways.  

The X-Files' Future Remains Chris Carter's Call
Fox's public stance on more X-Files hasn't changed — much. "We'd love to do another season," said Madden, who spoke of it as more of an inevitability than a possibility. "There are active talks with all three principals. We're working hard, and we'd love to get another season out soon." Piggybacking onto the status of David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and creator Chris Carter, one reporter asked if there would be any creative shift after so many critics took issue with much of the six-episode revival. "The show was off the air for a long time," said Walden, who said she thought the reception was "mixed." "There was a lot of time to cover in these six episodes. And they had the challenge of filling in the mythology. Going forward, there won't be as much catching up." Madden also noted that Carter will continue to shepherd any future for the X-Files brand at Fox: "If we have the opportunity to do more episodes, we'll take cues from Chris' team."

To Reboot or Not to Reboot? That's a Complicated Question
Fox is not just rebooting to save a few bucks on marketing costs, although Walden admitted that that is one of the key reasons to commission programs based on existing IP. “You get the advantage of recognition and then face the challenge of living up to the original,” she said. And she went on to evangelize the network's reboots: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Exorcist, midseason revival 24 and especially Lethal Weapon. The latter, based on the Danny Glover-Mel Gibson buddy movie franchise, “leapt over the bar” set by the movies, said Walden. Market research reveals that the show — starring Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford — also is among the most well-received by test audiences. (It will be paired with Empire on Wednesdays this fall.) And Walden asserted that it’s too easy to generalize reboots as merely a lazy approach to content. The Exorcist, she said, “took us two years to work through the rights and find the right writer. We’re not interested in just rebooting titles. We have a lot of faith in these four shows.”

The Grinder and Grandfathered Got a Fair Shot
Fox bowed four half-hour comedies last season and none of them made the cut to be renewed for a second season, including critically praised The Grinder, starring Rob Lowe, and Grandfathered with John Stamos. And Walden admitted that comedy has become even more challenging in a time-shifted, multiplatform universe that is exploding with content. “Comedy doesn’t have the same urgency to view,” she said. Audiences tend to watch comedies over a longer period that is beyond the seven-day window that allows networks to monetize them. As an example, Walden offered up 20th TV’s How I Met Your Mother, which didn’t get much traction until its third season: “It’s not a day and time where we have that kind of patience.” That said, she asserted that The Grinder and Grandfathered had enough time to find their legs. “I don’t think our comedies last year were canceled quickly,” said Walden. “We gave them full seasons. They weren’t able to generate the type of ratings that would justify us leaving them on the broadcast platform.”

Thank Kerry Washington for Pitch's Move From Midseason
Fox made a swift edit to its fall lineup almost immediately after setting the schedule at the upfronts. And, as it turns out, it was a response to a scheduling move from another network. What happened? "Scandal moved out of the time period," said Walden, referring to ABC's decision to sideline the series to accommodate star Kerry Washington's pregnancy. "The idea of putting Pitch up against a show that's a juggernaut with female viewers was not appealing to us." Bonus: Fox now gets the fall exposure of Empire and the World Series for the MLB-set show.

Fox Won't Rush to Repeat Grease Live!
Based on new talent deals, Fox is clearly eager to do another live musical event. What shape that will take remains a mystery. Speaking in a scrum of reporters after the presentation, Madden said that it doesn't necessarily have to be a staging of a familiar Broadway show. He said the network also is open to an original idea or mining Fox's music library.

Ownership Isn't Everything
Few network heads are more familiar with the importance of ownership than Walden. Coming from the studio two years ago and overseeing the Fox TV Group with Newman, she has a current roster of 50 series — most of which don't air on her own network. But with more and more emphasis on vertical integration, she also insisted that there's always room for other studios. "All of the media companies are meaningfully into the content ownership business," she said, "but the ownership issue hasn't stopped Gotham and Lucifer from staying on our schedule." Lethal Weapon, perhaps Fox's biggest bet for the fall, also hails from Warner Bros. TV. "We all want to be on each other's platforms," said Walden, admitting that those shows do make for a different discussion when renewals are on the table. "It is a higher bar when it's a show produced by an outside studio, but on a show like the ones I've mentioned, they're no-brainers."