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It’s Sept. 21, and Kevin Reilly is coming down with something, which is understandable given his exhausting week. He launched several hours of new programming, and with the Emmy telecast under his watch, Fox’s entertainment president squeezed in a triathlon — his second this year. Despite a head cold, the veteran TV executive is beaming after the Zooey Deschanel comedy New Girl premiered to an impressive 10.3 million viewers and a 4.8 rating in the 18-to-49 demo (it held much of that audience for its second episode, prompting Fox to pull the trigger on the season’s first full-season pick-up).
Reilly, 49, has programmed Fox for four years after stints at NBC, FX and Brad Grey Television. With the addition of gutsy offerings The X Factor and Terra Nova this season, and with such staples as Glee and Family Guy, Fox is poised to rank No. 1 among those younger viewers for an eighth straight season.
The married father of three boys and avid environmentalist (he is active with the Nature Conservancy) sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss topics including Fox’s year-round strategy for summer and whether he’s second-guessing himself over Terra Nova.
The Hollywood Reporter: What are your goals for this development season?
Kevin Reilly: Live-action comedies probably top the list. Since I came back to Fox, the network has kind of lost its pulse on the comedy side. It’s debatable how much brand association you have with a network, but historically, there has been higher brand association with Fox: “Oh, that’s a Fox unscripted show,” or, “that’s a Fox drama.” Fox comedy had been clear at one point, from Married … With Children to The Bernie Mac Show to Malcolm in the Middle. It really kind of lost its way, and now I finally feel like we’ve got the makings of getting that built again. We’re going to try four comedies in March [likely to include Christian Slater’s Breaking In], and it’s something we want to see more of on the schedule next year. The other priority is building out the whole year.
THR: You’ve been talking about year-round scheduling for some time.
Reilly: Yes, and I think we have the opportunity with X Factor in the fall to finally do it. Even though we program the summer with top-rated unscripted shows, a lot of our schedule goes into repeats, and repeats have little to no value on network TV anymore. If we end up with the kind of season we think we are going to have, we really want to start extending into what essentially will look like year-round originals. We have fewer hours than other networks, and one of the high-class problems that I’m fighting right now is the general sentiment of some of the suppliers: “Oh, Fox doesn’t need anything.” I’ve been doing this a fairly long time, and I’ve never been at a network where you’re so good you don’t need anything. Whatever good news you have, you’ve always got two pieces of bad news looming, so we’re going to use that extra shelf space of the summer to push that.
THR: What genres will you look to play in the summer?
Reilly: The exact opposite of what the prevailing wisdom has been. There’s this look at the summer, by the networks in particular, that it’s the time for light and cheap, as if those hours are somehow less important. Cable, where we at FX kind of blazed the trail for what cable is doing, does just the opposite: It makes a ton of noise, puts in all of its marketing efforts and makes it important, and plenty of people seem to want to watch those scripted shows over the summer. So we’re going to that philosophy now.
THR: Financially, would the current broadcast model support that?
Reilly: There is plenty of money there [from advertisers]. It’s the way the business was built, which is that most shows don’t earn out on a P&L basis just on their first run, so by playing it multiple times you begin to get in the black. So you program for the sweeps period and then basically recoup and repeat all summer – that’s the financial model that makes the most sense on paper. But go and look at the last batch of springs. Across the board, even the biggest hits on television established season lows, if not series lows, in the spring. There’s daylight savings time and with batches of repeats, people just lose track of what’s on and what’s off.
THR: Do you foresee experimenting with different programming strategies — be they straight-to-series orders or international co-productions — particularly in the summer?
Reilly: I feel like the overall media landscape is really coming into focus. The either-or thing of, well, “The digital business was going to continue to just erode our business model and frankly, make television seem like a thing of the past.” I don’t know if you noticed, but Facebook is making announcements having to do with access to traditional media content. So what’s really become clear is that it’s not an either/or proposition, it’s a feedback loop between the two, and there’s many, many things that I think point to an optimistic future. People still love shows, they want to talk about them, participate in them and go deeper. With that said, the nature of how people are watching these things has changed and while we’d love everybody to be there day-and-date, that’s just a trend we’re not going to be able to reverse.
As all of this is going on, I don’t feel that the model is broken or dead, as many people were suggesting; nevertheless, it’s quickly evolving, and if we aren’t changing our thinking and using the power of the social nature of television by putting something in people’s hands, using our schedule assets to introduce things and then maybe they come on later, programming at different times of the year, to me that’s just being responsive to where the landscape is today. And if you have a network — knock on wood as many times as I can– that’s not taking on a lot of water, you can begin to really experiment with those things.
THR: Do you see the Netflix-type services as friend or foe?
Reilly: It’s both. That’s the dance we’re in. The very things that are providing a challenge to our system also are potentially the salvation of our business — and theirs as well. They’d all love to have all of the product and revenue and put us out of business, and yet I think they know if they put us out of business, they are going to be right behind us.
THR: Simon Cowell told THR that if X Factor didn’t attract 20 million viewers, it would be a “disappointment.”
Reilly: God bless him — that’s our Simon. I don’t know that we would put it in quite those same terms. But like he says all the time: Nobody goes out to win the bronze medal. Is the show capable of doing 20 million? It sure is. [The show debuted Sept. 21 with 12.5 million viewers.] I like the vibe of it, and the judges’ panel feels right. As far as expectations in general this year, one of the concerns we have is that we can win and still be perceived to be failing.
THR: I’d imagine Terra Nova falls into that category?
Reilly: Yes. You hear, “It’s the most expensive show in the history of the world!” The good news this year is that we’re not all-in on any one show.
THR: When do you have to make a decision about a second season of Terra Nova?
Reilly: Before the first of the year, at the latest. We couldn’t wait until the spring and see how everything else plays out; otherwise, we would never be able to deliver the following year.
THR: Will you order more shows like Terra Nova that go straight to series with only 13-episode seasons, like on cable?
Reilly: I don’t love that model, to be honest with you. Pilots are useful. You just learn things during a pilot — the piece of casting that just wasn’t right or things about the storytelling nature. Some of what we struggled with on Terra Nova were natural growing pains you would go through on any pilot, but you’re trying to change wheels while you’re going 60 mph, and that’s hard. I don’t regret it for Terra Nova because I think it was the only viable way to do the show, and if we had a situation like that to do again, we would.
THR: Is Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management something you’d consider buying?
Reilly: I don’t think I’ll comment on that.
THR: Do you find yourself more involved in the note-giving process on Glee this season, given the criticism of season two?
Reilly: No more than before. I have a long history with Ryan [Murphy, who worked with Reilly on FX’s Nip/Tuck], and we’re in great hands there. I think, frankly, some of [the backlash] was inevitable. When you are burning that hot on anything, sooner or later there’s going to be the other side of it. They’ve acknowledged some of the issues that were there last season, and they were real. There were a lot of things they tried last season, some of which worked fantastically, others that felt like a little bit of a dead end or a dropped ball. When I get worried about a show is when people say, “I’m tired of these characters,” or, “the relationships are boring.” But what we’ve heard consistently is: “I love the core characters. Can we just get back to them?” That’s what you’re going to see this season.
THR: Does it concern you that Murphy and Brad Falchuk are splitting their time between Glee and FX’s American Horror Story?
Reilly: They’ve set up two separate systems, and they’re running it great. It’s not conventional and it’s not a quiet process, but I would work with Ryan and his team for the rest of my career and be happy to do it — even on the days where he wants to kill me and I want to kill him.
THR: News Corp. COO Chase Carey made headlines recently when he said the company would consider a Simpsons network. What’s the latest there?
Reilly: We’re coming to a crossroads where we want to keep The Simpsons going, and we’re in negotiations right now, but we’ve been sitting on a big library of episodes [that are locked into long-term syndication deals]. We’re having conversations with [executive producer] Jim Brooks trying to figure out what the next chapter looks like. I certainly don’t want it to be on my watch where we have to make that change.