As much of the TV industry partakes in the annual ritual of pilot season, spending millions on boldfaced names and expensive test episodes that will never make it to air, David Madden‘s attention is elsewhere.
As president of Fox Television Studios, a position he was elevated to in August after a decade at the company, he is busy tinkering with TV tradition. FtvS has had its success in cable with hits such as USA’s Burn Notice (a stand-alone TV movie aired April 17), E!’s The Girls Next Door and AMC’s new The Killing. Now, Madden, 55, and his staff are trying to bring that cable mind-set to broadcast fare, often shaving about 30 percent off a typical budget of $3 million-$5 million per hourlong episode with tighter shoot schedules, shorter seasons, cheaper talent deals, off-the-beaten-path locales, international partners and no pilots. But just because a new economic model is necessary in today’s fractured landscape, where ancillary revenue streams are drying up, doesn’t mean it’s easy: ABC’s The Gates and Fox’s The Good Guys, for instance, are among FtvS lower-cost broadcast efforts that weren’t granted a second season. But Madden, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard before spending the first 20 years of his career as a producer and studio executive in the film world, is not ready to give up.
The married father of one sat down with THR in his Los Angeles office to discuss his The Shield‘s beginning, The Killing‘s risk and the ups and downs of fixing broadcast’s economics.
The Hollywood Reporter: News Corp. already had a successful studio churning out hit TV shows. Why have another?
David Madden: By the time our TV-movie business fell apart, we had The Shield in our pocket. We went to [News Corp.’s then-COO] Peter Chernin in 2005 and said, “You can shut us down, or you can give us the opportunity to pursue the series business.” He said, “I don’t need another company trying to do what [20th Century Fox Television] does, but they’re a department store. When you run a department store, your goal is to get a lot of merchandise through the door as swiftly as possible — so you want merchandise that will slip easily through the door; nothing odd-shaped, difficult or hard to sell. You go be the boutique around the corner. You don’t need to have 25 shows on the air, but if you can get five to seven and take chances and do things that a department store wouldn’t do, that makes sense to me.’ ” [Since Chernin stepped down in 2009, Madden has reported to 20th bosses Dana Walden and Gary Newman.]
THR: How does The Killing fit into that strategy?
Madden: The Killing is as risky in its form as 24 was when it launched. We’ll take a season to tell a very careful, deliberate, twisting/turning mystery that is almost more novelistic in its approach.
THR: Was AMC your first choice for this series?
Madden: AMC was in the first group that we went to. … I think it could have lived at Showtime, HBO or even FX.
THR: How would it have been different on pay cable?
Madden: There’s often a desire to be outrageous in some way on pay cable. What’s outrageous about The Killing is its structure — it’s one long, serpentine story — but we don’t have provocative nudity or wild violence. It’s not True Blood or Dexter. So if it were made for one of those networks, there would have been a desire to provide the elements that make pay cable distinctive from broadcast. I think AMC is provocative in its own way, mostly by implication — by the things that you don’t see, as opposed to the things you do. I vividly remember Ben Davis [AMC’s vp scripted programming] asking to watch the first episode and then coming back and saying, “Can I watch a few more?” He and at least half a dozen people at the network ended up watching all 20 hours of the original Danish version before they bought it. At a broadcast network, if you can get somebody to watch an hour of some show that they didn’t actually make, you should feel fortunate.
THR: What’s your biggest challenge as a studio chief?
Madden: How we make money on our shows. As recently as two or three years ago, we could count on a successful show having a significant DVD life. That would be our saving grace for a show that might not make it into syndication or do extraordinarily well overseas. These days, the name that gets bandied about more than anything else is Netflix. There are moments where it looks like Netflix will be the supplement that will make up the difference for what’s being lost in DVD, and then there are moments when that doesn’t look like it will be the case. There are networks that are comfortable with us exploiting Netflix; there are networks that are not comfortable with it.
THR: FtvS has built a reputation as a company trying to reinvent what many would argue is a broken model for broadcast television. Fair?
Madden: My former boss Emiliano Calemzuk came in 2007 and introduced a lot of challenging and interesting business models, including making shows that would be partially financed by international networks and going straight to series. [Calemzuk left last summer to join Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group.] In the first incarnation of that model, we’d go into production on a series without having a U.S. network involved at all.
THR: Yes, with shows like ABC’s Defying Gravity and Fox’s Mental. Why didn’t they work?
Madden: And Persons Unknown at NBC. All three were made at a price and in a business model where we actually could make them at essentially break-even Season 1. But none went to Season 2. By making shows without any U.S. network participation and selling it to them as finished products, the networks bought them without the creative, financial and emotional investment that would lead them to get behind the shows and promote and market them as fully as they would their own in-house development. Our next two shows had U.S. networks involved.
THR: Will you continue to try?
Madden: The first phone call I got as president was from [News Corp. COO] Chase Carey, who said, “You’ll never be criticized for failing; you’ll only be criticized for maintaining the status quo.” It was a remarkable statement. This is a company that for years flailed: What are we doing? Are we a reality-show or a TV-movie company? There were many years when we lost money. We have turned it around. We clearly don’t make the money that 20th makes, but we’re a very profitable company. We’ve proven the financial viability of doing our shows — and by experimenting with these models, we’ve shaken up the preconceptions of how television shows can and should be produced and financed. News Corp. has had a tradition of rattling cages, and we’ve been encouraged to rattle cages. I think what we’ve done has made people question, “Are they crazy?” Half the time, I’m not sure if people are rooting for us or against us, but we’re going to keep doing it. We are meant to be — within the confines of a very large, successful multinational corporation — the maverick company.
THR: How do you persuade the broadcast networks to continue taking these kinds of chances?
Madden: The broadcast networks clearly have a need to program things that will be at different prices, depending on the time period and time of year. So you may want to spend a fortune on the seventh season of Grey’s Anatomy or the 11th year of CSI — you may not have any choice but to spend that kind of money, and because you’re spending it, that show will have a particularly favorable time slot and be positioned in a particularly favorable way. But you can’t do that across the board. What are you going to put on Friday night at 9 p.m.? Or Saturday or the summer?
THR: The answer, at least for summer, has been reality.
Madden: They may want to use those spots for reality shows, and there’s nothing wrong with reality shows — we make a bunch of them. But frequently they have less appeal to advertisers and are not as appealing to the affluent viewers that advertisers are most interested in. So they need to be able to pay a hefty license fee for Terra Nova, but then they need to be able to compensate for that by paying a lesser license fee for a cheaper show. That’s how feature studios operate. They have a distribution schedule with peak times like Christmas and summer, but you can’t afford to have 15 Avatars across your schedule.