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The Television Critics Association’s winter press tour stage, under the hot lights on a ballroom stage at the Langham in Pasadena, is not the best venue for wild prognostication, insecure speculation or nervous introspection. It’s not a comfortable place for discussing private meetings, terrified phone calls or paranoid unearthing of worst-case scenarios.
Maybe that’s why what initially felt like wondrous serendipity in having Fox and FX lead off the press tour just weeks after the announcement of the acquisition of many/most Fox assets by Disney broke has turned into a blue-sky exercise in positive-skewing uncertainty.
It’s just that, from an industry adjacent position, Fox’s television studio and FX becoming part of the Disney empire seems like a gigantic, industry-shaking deal. For me as TCA president, the mere idea of shifting FX from its normal position next to Fox in the normal press tour schedule to a new slot following ABC and next to Freeform and Toddler Disney feels huge — and that’s before one stops to think of the idea of a Fox Broadcasting Co. without a direct studio partner and fueled by a possible 80 percent live and sporting events.
To hear Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden tell it, things are currently “business as usual.” That was a phrase they uttered three times in their opening press conference Thursday, the same number of times they used the word “robust,” which was applied to New Fox, the TV studio and future ad sales.
For nearly 30 minutes, critics tried finding different ways to get Walden and Newman to break down and yell, “We don’t know what the future will be, but it’s dark and cold and we’re scared!”
The questions came in so many shapes and sizes that the room didn’t even get around to asking anything about clouds of sexual impropriety hanging over the entire industry, this despite the fact that Fox’s only major TCA announcement was a renewal for The Gifted.
Instead, it was variations on Newman’s “The truth is we don’t really know, but I will tell you that we remain super-committed to the network and studio” and Walden’s acknowledgement, “Clearly, we will have decisions to make over time.”
And that time, as Walden and Newman told us on at least four or five occasions, may not come for 12 to 18 months and until then, it will be business as usual. Apparently.
It’s hard to imagine that being the case. For one thing, 12 months and 18 months are very different things in the life of a TV network. Fox, like all of its broadcast siblings, is in the early throes of development season, and a 12-month window means the world would turn upside down in January, while 18-month window would put that date closer to next June. January for a broadcast network means the world would change two months into the formal 2018-19 TV season, while June would mean Fox Broadcasting Co. has a full season before it becomes New Fox or whatever New Fox ends up being called. If you’re scheduling a network, that’s a big difference. But, more than that, if you’re pitching projects to Fox, that’s a huge difference. The reality of the industry has always been that the people you’re pitching to may not be in the same jobs by the time your show gets picked up or nears the end of its first season, but I’m just not able to believe that showrunners aren’t going to be impacted by the awareness that they’re pitching to a network that may be 80 percent sports and live events at exactly the moment they’re on the bubble.
And what, pray tell, of those shows that are currently on Fox and on the bubble? And by that I mean basically any show on Fox that isn’t Empire. This has ramifications for Brooklyn Nine-Nine or The Last Man on Earth, and those ramifications are different than the ramifications on outside-studio bubble shows like Gotham.
I’m sure there’s a level on which it really is “business as usual.” As Newman put it, “Our shows are in production. Development is moving forward with top creators, including Lee Daniels, Liz Meriwether, Nahnatchka Khan, Jerrod Carmichael and Howard Gordon, and we are maintaining a brand that’s meaningful to our advertisers, distribution partners and audience.”
There’s no way there isn’t a level on which it’s not. But what occupies conversations behind closed doors isn’t always intended to be on-the-record.
FX’s John Landgraf followed up Walden and Newman’s open-minded uncertainty with actual enthusiasm, or at least optimism.
“In some ways, it’s the oddness that it’s so different than Disney’s brand right? That FX and Disney’s brand are so different from each other is a good thing, because it means that also what it is that we do and the expertise we have doesn’t exist currently inside that company, meaning we bring something distinctive and unique into their world,” the exec told reporters Friday morning. “And I think if you look at the larger context of streaming right? Obviously one of the things that [Bob] Iger has said is that one of the reasons they’re getting bigger is they want to be able to compete against global streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. And when you think about the amount of money that subscription services like HBO and Netflix and Amazon have made in adult scripted programming, the very content in which we have expertise, you can see with clarity that at least they believe that’s a really good thing to invest in, that that’s an important component of what drives consumers’ interest in a streaming service. And so we end up becoming the sort of adult scripted component of their larger plans.”
And look, that beats the heck out of Landgraf sitting onstage and saying, “Yeah, I’m terrified, because the thing we do isn’t a thing Disney has a core competency at and so we’re going to be ill-fitting outliers.” But the CEO is nothing if not reliably pragmatic about so many other things, so in pure Bye Bye Birdie style, this was a time for him to put on a happy face.
“It’s more complicated, I think, when there are individuals or organizations that have counterparts at Disney, right? Where there’s organizations that overlap in terms of what they do or there are individuals who overlap on some level in terms of what they do,” said Landgraf. “Neither I nor anyone at FX has any counterpart at Disney. What FX is and what FX does simply doesn’t exist in their organization, so on some levels that a relatively clean thing.”
Again, might you think that not being a thing existing in an organization might reflect not being a thing with a place in an organization, but it’s the public role of everybody at FX to look in terms of “Why would Disney want us if not to do that thing we do?” rather than “What if Disney wants us to do a thing they understand better than the thing we do?”
For the various showrunners we’ve seen so far, there has been a similar feeling of, “Surely they’d only want me to be me.”
Seth MacFarlane described himself as “unfazed” and said, “This kind of stuff happens often now, and I think if you know, by buying 20th Century Fox, they bought all of its franchises as well. And I think that’s where the value is. So I don’t really expect anything to change all that much. If I had to guess, I would say they would maybe treat it like a Touchstone in the ’80s and let 20th be its thing and be its brand. And Disney, obviously, is its brand. And again, I’m just guessing, but I would suspect that that’s how it would be. I don’t think a whole lot is going to change.”
Ryan Murphy at least admitted to being emotional when he was told about the sale of the company that gave him a chance when nobody else would.
“Three months ago, I thought I would literally be buried on the Fox lot. I mean, I really did,” he said. “It is an interesting thing to feel that suddenly your family could change or be separated, and I think that I’ve just decided to wait and sit back and talk to my friends, who are my bosses, and see what’s happening with them and then make a decision once we sort of know what’s happening,” added Murphy, whose lucrative overall deal with 20th TV is up this year. “I don’t think anybody knows exactly what that company is going to look like now. But I was surprised, and I’m hopeful.”
So I guess the first two days of the press tour were not, in fact, perfectly timed to hear about the hopes and fears tied to the Disney/Fox deal.
Maybe in 12 to 18 months?