Fox restoring order with 'Anarchy' budget

Earlier production costs 'were out of whack,' Walden says

LAS VEGAS -- Things got out of whack with "The X-Files," but they're getting back on track with "Sons of Anarchy."

That in a nutshell is how top Fox execs describe the trajectory that budgets for TV series should be taking, now that cost-cutting has become the mantra at all the major networks.

For its part, Fox is actively responding to the global recession, and to the more general reinvention of the broadcast network business model.

So said both chairmen of Twentieth Century Fox Television at an early morning chat over coffee Wednesday moderated by NATPE president CEO-Rick Feldman.

"We are indeed rolling back production costs, which were out of whack with the advertising market," Dana Walden said.

Primetime dramas in particular, she and her counterpart Gary Newman said, have gotten out of control in their quest for movielike qualities.

"We were one of the first offenders," Walden admitted. " 'X-Files' had featurelike qualities, and as the show became more successful it became harder to have that conversation with (writer-producer) Chris Carter."

"It's a mind-set thing," Newman added, pointing out that producer Stephen Cannell (with whom the two met recently) used to shoot in six days, never seven or eight, and he managed to juggle several shows at once.

"We've all allowed the drama business to expand but our higher production values don't (necessarily ) result in a better viewer experience. The ratings certainly don't prove it," Newman said.

A year or two ago Fox set up a lower-cost incubation unit called Fox 21 modeled on the Fox Searchlight movie unit and with the stated goal of reining in costs. "Sons of Anarchy" has come out of that effort, they said.

What does Fox21 do differently? The unit has strict ceilings on star and director salaries, shoots in seven not eight days, discourages multiple locations and encourages smaller casts. Newman said the unit works on budgets two-thirds of current network primetime spends.

Walden and Newman, who have shared the top jobs at Fox for almost a decade, also lauded, though, showrunners on primetime juggernauts like "24," who have successfully managed to organically integrate product placements -- without making a fuss.

In other remarks, Newman said Fox would not follow the recent moves by NBC and ABC to fully integrate their TV network and production operations as the Fox approach will be to continue to pitch and produce for all networks.

"If a writer's idea fits at our network, great, but if not, we want that pitch to resonate with someone else," he said.