Fox Entertainment Chief on Facing Fears, Finding Network's Sweet Spot (Q&A)

20th Century Fox TV
David Madden

"I'd actually settle for one genuine new success between now and May — that's a good year," says David Madden

Fox Broadcasting's new regime will not be chasing cable.

Instead, under entertainment president David Madden, and with his bosses Gary Newman and Dana Walden, the broadcast network will be focused on finding a sweet spot between the exceedingly dark fare of cable (think Breaking Bad) and the very traditional fare on broadcast (think NCIS). "We can't be chasing characters into the abyss," he says, "and we can't go to the miserable places that AMC and FX can go so successfully."

What that will mean is still a work in progress as Madden, who came over from cable-centric Fox TV Studios this summer, prepares to dole out his first batch of pilot orders in the coming weeks. Since he accepted the gig, Madden and his team at the fourth-placed network have been focused on some key holes on Fox's schedule, including big family comedies in the Modern Family vein and character-driven procedurals that hark back to House.

As part of this week's cover story, Madden sat down for a wide-ranging interview about his decision to leave his cushy studio gig, his plans to turn around the network and the opportunities that come with a last-place ranking.

Read more New Fox Chiefs Reveal Reboot Plan: 'We're Not Looking to Do Smaller, Dark Programming

You moved over in August, and I know the deal came together quickly. How did it happen?

I had gone to New York, where we were shooting the last couple days of White Collar. I wanted to be there for the end of that. I had signed up for a new deal at FTVS for another big stretch, but the first group of FTVS shows had come to an end, so I was flying back in a kind of sentimental mode. The next day, I'm back in L.A. and I go to have lunch with Dana and Gary, which had been in the books, in the studio conference room. So, we're sitting there, and after 10 minutes of small talk, Dana turns to Gary and says, "OK, you go," and Gary starts talking about the network in very abstract terms; the things that are working, the things that aren't working so well. It takes me maybe 10 minutes to realize they're actually asking me to come to the network.

The lunch goes on for another hour, but the whole time I'm just having my own internal conversation where half of me is saying, "It's a challenge and I'm excited about a challenge," and half of me is like, "That's terrifying." Then there was a point toward the end where I recognized that they were both kind of looking at me expectedly. My brain said, "OK, tell them that you need to take a few days and talk to your wife and talk to some people and you'll get back to them and play it cool." But my mouth blurted out, "I'm in." It all happened really quickly. That lunch was on a Wednesday, and it was announced the following Thursday. The [speed with which it got done] was a testament to Dana and Gary, who when they want something to happen, it happens.

So, you accept the job. What were those early conversations like with regard to where you'd like to take the Fox brand?

There has been a series of conversations that continue. There was no one single conversation where we said, "Eureka, we found whatever the Fox brand is!" (Laughs.) A brand is something that you both want to figure out and yet allow it to be as elastic as possible. With regard to drama, one thing that had been clear to all three of us was that it was silly for us to try to chase cable, which, especially over the last couple of years, was going darker and darker as everybody started to worship Breaking Bad and True Detective. It was silly for us to try because there were a lot of things cable could do that we couldn't, and because we were also trying to compete with 40 other platforms that were doing the same thing.

At the same time, there was an extremely traditional kind of television show that people identify with CBS, whether that's fair or unfair, and it felt like between that highly traditional show and the cable one, there was a space in the center that we could occupy. The first word out of my mouth with regard to our dramas should be "entertaining." We can't be chasing characters into the abyss, and we can't go to the miserable places that AMC and FX can go so successfully. I think our shows should be fun, which does not mean they shouldn't be smart or character-based or thematic or layered — they can be and should be all of those things.

And how about comedy, a genre Fox has struggled with of late?

Putting aside the animated comedies, because obviously they've worked extraordinarily well, one thing that you can probably say of some of the live-action comedies in Fox's past is that they tended to be a little brittle. They tend to be a little joke, joke, joke. 20th TV's history, with Modern Family most recently, is so much about comedies that have good, genuine heart to them, so I think that was really the focus of our comedy development. This is a network that, in live-action comedy, doesn't have a family show, so that was a big, aggressive target that we developed toward. And we really only had one workplace show, which was Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and we felt like we needed more of that, too. I think we have, in New Girl, arguably the best of the current "single people in their 20s trying to find love" [shows], so I didn't think we needed a lot more of those.

Reality is a new genre for all three of you. How have you approached it?

We approached it not dissimilarly to how we're approaching scripted, because your instincts are your instincts. So we wanted to make sure that our shows had real heart and emotion to them. We didn't want to be making reality shows that were mean at their core. Some of Fox's past reality shows had a little meaner spirit — it was a different time and a different way of getting attention and ratings — but I think we want to be a little more aspirational now, a little more "Anybody can watch it and you don't feel stupid watching it." MasterChef Jr. is a perfect example of something very inspirational. And before I got here, Dana and Gary had already launched the campaign to figure out how to resurrect Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, but having a 5th grader at home myself, that was a show I could relate to.

That leaves the events space.

I think that's also an evolving conversation. We didn't do terribly well with Gracepoint. We're all smarter in retrospect, but I'm not sure that can ever really have been perceived as an "event." Ultimately, as great as its British season was, the press was very aware that there was a British season and you couldn't not compare them, especially with David [Tennant] in both parts. And, ultimately, it boiled down to two cops found a dead child and they spent a season trying to solve that murder. Well, it's been done. We did it in The Killing [at FTVS]; True Detective did it; The Bridge did it. There was no event to that idea. So, to the extent that we're going to do events, and we will, I think they have to qualify as that.

What would qualify?

Under the Dome is the easiest show to point to where the auspices, the two Stevens [Steven Spielberg and Stephen King], made that an event, and a very clear idea that you can tell people. Fox bringing back 24 was another kind of an event series. That clearly had a title that made it an event. [Going forward] I think they need to be titles. They need to be things that don't need the kind of marketing campaign that you would have to have to support an ongoing traditional series. They need to be sort of, "OK, that's what it is and I get it." Whether that's a live event like Grease, where it's a one-night live musical, or whether it's a six- or 10-hour series, there are opportunities for that.

One of the challenges that your bosses had mentioned was that there wasn't much of a bench of replacement shows when you arrived.

There was no bench. We looked at the bench and said, "Oh, there's a bench. There's nothing on it! Where's our pinch hitter?" (Laughs.)

But filling a bench is also very expensive. So how do you set out to fill it in an efficient way?

I think we have to have a balance of things. Utopia was a wildly expensive reality show and I'm sure there will be other reality shows in the future that are similarly expensive that we really believe in and are going to take a shot on, but they'll be the exception not the rule. Most other reality shows will be more modest. With scripted, Gotham is one of our most expensive shows and it's also one of our most successful shows, so I can't sit here and say to you with a straight face, "I'll try to avoid very expensive things." And there are some things we're developing that, if they get ordered and go to series, will be very expensive — but, at the same time, one of the things that Dana and Gary are really interested in doing is looking for opportunities to bring scripted back to Fridays. If you're going to do a scripted show on a Friday night, it can't be very expensive — we have to do them more on the cable model, more in the model that we were doing at FTVS.

You inherited a network in fourth place. How challenging has it been to motivate people?

There's a cliche element to this statement, but there's something galvanizing about opportunity. When you're number four, there's opportunity; when you're number one, there's less. And we've all seen how volatile those positions are. NBC was at the bottom, now they're not; things can move around. Also, I think there was something incredibly encouraging about having Gotham as part of this experience. It had a great lineage, yes, but it was a self-starter and it worked on a ratings level and it worked creatively. The fact that Brooklyn moved to Sundays [with the animated comedies] and that experiment worked, too, was great. It took a show that was already perceived as a good show and gave it a ratings lift and helped expand it to a new audience. And then MasterChef Jr. is the only broadcast reality show that's up from its previous year. So, there's actually some really good news this fall. If I were sitting here with you and everything we had tried had failed, well, that would be hard and I might be calling my lawyer.

How are you thinking about a turnaround?

We've only been here four months. But the fact that we've been here a relatively short time and still there are actually good things to point to — and granted, most of the things that we point to are from the previous regime. But I still think for the group that's here, for the group that Dana and Gary inherited, that's a testament to them — and look, nobody's going to sit here and expect that we're going to have nine new hit shows in a season. I think that if we, in midseason, get one or two, and I'd actually settle for one genuine new success between now and May — that's a good year. And I feel really good about what we bought in terms of development. Obviously, it's early to know what the results of any of it will be, but I feel really good about it.