Fox's Peter Rice on Comedy, Pilot Season and the Network/Studio Consolidation

Peter Rice Headshot - P 2012
Getty Images

Peter Rice Headshot - P 2012

Fox Networks Group chairman and CEO Peter Rice slipped into the hot seat Sunday.

His appearance before a few hundred reporters gathered for the TV Critics Association's semiannual tour came after a particularly newsworthy week at his company. First, he and his 21st Century Fox bosses tapped Dana Walden and Gary Newman to run the Fox broadcast network as well as the studio for which they've had control for more than a decade. As part of that move, Rice, too, was elevated, gaining oversight over the studio and adding the pair as direct reports. Days later, it became public that his bosses had made a rejected $80 billion bid to acquire Time Warner in a deal that would monumentally alter the entertainment landscape.

PHOTOS Broadcast TV's New 2014-15 Shows

Although there were limitations to what Rice could and would discuss, the traditionally press-shy exec appeared utterly at ease addressing topics ranging from the future of American Idol to the plan to maintain former entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly's commitment to a year-round schedule.

Below are the highlights.

What's Really Going On 

When he was asked to explain the newly formed Fox TV Group structure and why he and his bosses felt a realignment was necessary, Rice was more than prepared. At least twice during the executive session, he spoke about how much the broadcast landscape had changed in recent years, with many of Fox's rivals producing primarily from themselves. So while the old News Corp. way of having a big independent studio in 20th TV that sold everywhere put the latter at a "clear advantage," the network was suffering greatly. "We've been the odd man out," he said of what had become a "narrowing funnel" of projects reaching Fox Broadcasting brass, adding: "We were seeing less and having to compete with more networks." By aligning the studio and the network under Walden and Newman, he said he believes the company as well as its creative talent will benefit as it will be able to speak to the latter with a "single voice" for the first time in a decade. Of course, like Walden and Newman earlier in the week, Rice did make a point to stress that his network and studio would continue to operate independently, buying and selling from the outside.

Pilot Season Is Still Alive, Sort Of

There was no “pilot season” tombstone sharing the stage with Rice as there had been with Reilly six months earlier, but Rice did suggest he was in agreement with Reilly’s slightly misinterpreted mission of doing away with the truncated season (rather than pilots themselves). What’s more, he noted that he will remain committed to Reilly’s goal of trying to be “less rigid” in the development process. Going forward, that will mean a combination of approaches, including pilots — some made during the traditional pilot season, others made during other times of the year — and straight-to-series orders. "We're looking for the best projects," said Rice. "And I think we have to be open to making pilots year round."  

The Future of Idol

Rice took a second to remind the room just how long Idol has been on the air — and how strong of an asset Idol has been for Fox in that time. “I think it’s aging gracefully,” he said, reiterating that Idol remains a valuable player in the face of increased competition from other competition shows and a revolving door of on-air judges. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have his own criticisms of the show, which he suggested had more to do with the talent than it did anything else. “In the last two years,” he added, “we haven’t found a group of kids that captured the imagination of the American viewing public.” For the show’s 14th season, he confirms that Fox will remain committed to the past season’s judges and behind-the-scenes team. 

A Broader Comedy Brand

Critical praise is nice, but Rice wants big fat comedy hits. “We live in a world where hits are disproportionately important,” he said, noting that he’d love Fox to have ratings juggernauts on the scale of 20th’s Modern Family and How I Met Your Mother and he’s hoping Walden and Newman will deliver them to their new net. Without getting specific about subgenres, he suggested the new pair will be looking for things that capture people’s imagination and resonate with the audience at home. Whether Tina Fey’s stalled pilot, Cabot College, will be among the new batch of Fox comedies remains an open question, with Rice noting that Walden and Newman will have conversations with Fey and executive producer Robert Carlock about the direction of the series, which is still in development with a series commitment penalty.

The Ratings Universe

Rice reiterated a point made often throughout press tour: he and his network counterparts are increasingly chafing at the rush to report Nielsen's overnight live ratings, particularly as the advertising community is coming around to the value of delayed viewing. "When there are infinite choices for the consumer, it's impossible for that to be accurate," he said of overnight numbers. In making his case for the room to rethink its reporting strategy, Rice noted that this year the network wrote "about half" of its upfront on C7 (commercial ratings with seven days of delayed viewing) from the industry standard C3. And while Nielsen TV ratings remain the industry currency upon which billions of dollars in advertising guarantees are written, Rice contended that "the social and cultural impact of some of these shows is vastly beyond what their live rating is."

What's Coming, What's Going

What happened to Hieroglyph was a hot topic Sunday, with Rice offering the kind of candor Reilly often did: "When you take a swing that big, you have to really land it," he said, suggesting that the pricey pilot for the highly ambitious series did not. He, Walden and Newman decided to scrap the ancient Egypt drama after just one episode of its 13 episode order, noting that given both the ambitions and the costs it would have been imprudent to attempt to fix it on the fly. As for the network's other projects, he'd like to see Bones run beyond the upcoming season, though he acknowledged that would mean new contracts for its two leads, David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel, and that the team will be having conversations with the producers of 24 about whether or not the franchise will continue. In discussing the latter, he praised the show, and its ability to continually reinvent itself with another "fantastic" season.