Fox Upfront: Singing, Sports and a Bigger Push for 'Star'

Annette Brown/FOX

A year after initially teasing 'Star,' the network doubles down on the Lee Daniels drama by emphasizing ties to 'Empire.'

Monday morning's press call with Fox's Dana Walden and Gary Newman may have dwelled on American Idol heading to ABC, but their upfront presentation to ad buyers in the afternoon at New York's Beacon Theatre was all about their own original efforts — and their parent company's many sports properties.

The chairmen and CEOs — or, as Seth MacFarlane called them, "the only two people at Fox not being sued" — remain as focused on scripted as ever. Walden walked the crowd of media buyers through the new schedule, night by night, paying particular attention on newcomers The Gifted, The Orville (MacFarlane's straight-to-series space dramedy that looks reminiscent of Galaxy Quest) and sci-fi comedy Ghosted. It was the sitcom that seemed to play the best with the audience, which chuckled most every time star Craig Robinson screamed in the teaser.

Knowing what really keeps the lights on, much of the presentation that preceded the network's pitch focused on sports. Fox owes much of its No. 2 status among this season's broadcast ratings rankings to the Super Bowl and the World Series — though Newman also reminded that crowd that the network launched five of the top 15 new series last season. The duo were also hot on premiere numbers, touting the opening audiences for Lethal Weapon, Star and The Mick.

Fox, however, is still the home of Empire. And the network appears prepared to use the asset as much as possible while it's still pulling big numbers. Touting the show and its talent onstage during the middle of the 90-minute presentation, Fox is now deliberately blurring the lines with sister series Star.

Here are Monday's take-aways:

Star and Empire Now Share a Strategy
Fox is taking a very different strategy with Star for its sophomore season. After using Lee Daniels' pseudo-spinoff as a bridge during the Empire break, the two shows will now air together — with Empire now opening Wednesdays. Star may have had a solid audience, but it never came close to Empire (now No. 3 on broadcast) in terms of ratings. Walden and Newman appeared confident that Star, which returns with its third showrunner in the fall, will be better-served by airing alongside the flagship. And, per Newman, "There's higher [audience] duplication than any of the Shondaland shows." Further hinting at things to come, a musical number from Jussie Smollet segued into a performance from the cast of Star. The network even trotted out Taraji P. Henson, by far the most charming weapon in their artillery, to hype Empire's new time slot neighbor.

Who Needs the Super Bowl?
Buyers were treated to a surprise appearance from Terry Bradshaw's calves in a what proved to be a sports-heavy presentation. Bradshaw, joined by his Fox NFL Sunday co-stars, took the stage dressed like Bruno Mars for a football spoof of "24K Magic" that also saw Michael Strahan silently gyrating in the background. The Fox NFL lineup, which still annually out-rates NBC's Sunday Night Football, was a point of emphasis, but not as much as baseball. After the record-setting 2016 World Series, one that helped propel the network to its auspicious ratings status for the season, Fox appears prouder than ever of its MLB TV rights. Alex Rodriguez, who recently signed with the network, garnered a pretty rapturous applause from the New York crowd when he took the stage — and solid laughs when joking, "I wish they paid as much as the Yankees." The sports love wore out its welcome when a Big 10 musical number featured of row of seven men, each dressed as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, high-kicking like Radio City Rockettes to the Fox Sports theme.

The Digital Hit Job Continues
Joe Marchese, the network’s new president of advertising revenue, has been in the job less than a week. And taking the stage at the Beacon, Marchese made light of his very young tenure: “This is one heck of a third day of work.” Marchese, who previously led Fox’s ad products and operations, has long advocated for a better consumer experience at a time when consumers have a far more choices than ever and Fox, like its broadcast brethren, has struggled to keep up. The exec announced that all of FX VOD will have a single sponsor, among the strategies for which he had long advocated. An “improved viewer experience,” he noted, “is not in conflict with advertiser’s goals." Like NBCUniversal ad sales chairman Linda Yaccarino, Marchese stressed the accountability and safety of broadcast over digital-only platforms. He took direct aim at Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s recent assertion that the social network “has a Super Bowl on mobile every day.” There were bar graphs and charts and a lot of promises of affinity data designed by behavioral scientists and neurologists, but Marchese used a sports idiom to illustrate his point: “On any given Sunday,” he said, Fox delivers 768 million impressions, YouTube clocks in at 27 million and Facebook a meager 150,000.

More Song and Dance
Musical numbers are par for the upfronts course, but 2017 is shaping up to be more song-and-dance-y than in typical years. Seth MacFarlane seemed to get carte blanche for his musical number, which took the roasting typically seen from ABC's Jimmy Kimmel (or, earlier in the day, NBC's Seth Meyers) and set it to swing music. It wasn't always clear what he was saying over the 20-ish piece band — but when the jokes came through, they did seem to land. "If you think YouTube is the way to reach kids, just remember that your commercials will be shown on ISIS vids," he crooned, echoing this year's narrative that TV is the safest bet. Fox being the home of live musicals, with Rent on deck in 2018, the afternoon concluded with a troop singing "Seasons of Love" on an otherwise empty stage, which the crowd seemed to love quite a bit.