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Since being spun away from 20th Century Fox TV in 2018, Fox has been the only broadcast network without a major studio as part of its corporate structure. Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn sees it as a plus, however.
“It creates an open playing field for all of our partners,” Thorn told The Hollywood Reporter (Fox takes an ownership stake in any new series it develops with an outside studio). “When you combine that with we’re open all year round for development and are launching new series all year round, we find that we are still able to access the best talent in the business, even though it’s so competitive right now.”
Thorn discussed the broadcast network’s move to year-round development, how it paid off with shows like Our Kind of People and Monarch and the (long, Thorn hopes) features of its mainstay animated series, among other topics, with THR. The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve spoken before about year-round development and how Fox is being more aggressive with that model. I’m curious if the mindset in the town is changing — is it easier to have those conversations now, post pandemic and because streamers do it anyway? Is it just becoming the norm now?
It’s definitely our new normal. Where we see opportunity for Fox Entertainment is really to offer our creative partners a curated experience at Fox. And what I mean by that is we try to develop fewer, better [projects] and with the promise to our creative partners, be it writer, director, producer, studio, that every piece of development has an equal shot at getting to production.
And because we don’t have a vertically integrated studio at the moment, it creates an open playing field for all of our partners. When you combine that with we’re open all year round for development and are launching new series all year round, we find that we are still able to access the best talent in the business, even though it’s so competitive right now with so many platforms making so much content. So that’s a long way of saying that is our new normal and we find that we are pretty well positioned to access unique creative that way. So far, so good.
I wanted to ask specifically about Our Kind of People. It had been in the development pipeline for a long time, but once you actually greenlit it it felt like it came together faster than straight to series projects often do in terms of setting the cast and making a fall launch date. What can you take away from that and maybe apply to other shows that you develop in that way?
We don’t believe in a one size fits all development process. Some projects we believe require a pilot to really showcase its potential, and in other projects, like Our Kind of People or [midseason drama] Monarch, we believed the best creative path to success was a kind of a room to series. And it’s one of the things that we take very seriously. As we like to say, our nimbleness allows us to pivot depending on where we think the success lies for each project.
So, with Our Kind of People, we had put together a room and Karin [Gist] and her staff, along with Lee Daniels and their producing partners, had written five scripts and an outline when we greenlit the series. So we pulled the trigger and we have this great creative team with this really unique, special concept and we have this whole array of material to show [actors]. So we were really able to exploit those scripts to get the best cast possible.
When we were going through this stepping back during the pandemic, we took advantage of that time and really stepped back and experimented with a couple different processes, like room to series. And so far it has paid off. One of the things that you get to do in a serialized drama, having all that material, which you don’t get to do if you’re racing to a fall premiere off of one pilot, is you get the benefit of applying lessons learned in the creative and then going back and retrofitting it. In the case of Our Kind of People, there were things that Karin learned by episode four that she got really excited about, and she went back and rewrote those first several scripts. You don’t normally get to do that in a more traditional process.
So it gave you the luxury of some of extra time?
We had the benefit of time. And I think where Karin and Lee, and Melissa [London Hilfers] and Michael [Rauch] on Monarch — since we weren’t ready to go ahead and shoot, why not have them write? And I think you’ll see us trying this process in the future as well.
And in fact, I’ll give you one another. We ordered a series for next season — the 2022-23 season, speaking to being off cycle — Accused, from Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa and David Shore and Sony. It’s a 10-episode order and I think we have three scripts and an additional several pieces of material. And what a luxury. We are in business with these incredible creators who have such passion for this series. And our best way to support this unique show was to give Howard and Alex and David and their staff this ability to write these incredible scripts. And so far, I will tell you it’s really paying off. And I think that’s where in part our independence helps us: Because we are smaller we can be flexible in ways that maybe sometimes other companies don’t get to enjoy.
Family Guy, The Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers are in the middle of multi-year runs right now, and you don’t want to be the guy who ends any of them, I’m sure. But does there come a point, since they’re not in-house anymore, where the returns can’t make up for what they cost?
Those shows obviously long preceded me, but we are so proud to be involved with those shows. We see all three of them being on our air for a while, and we joke internally that the faces of these characters are the Mount Rushmore of animated characters.
And as you know, we are really expanding our original animation right now. In addition to buying Bento Box, we just ordered our first 100 percent Fox Entertainment, Bento-owned animated series from Dan Harmon, Krapopolis. And so our strategy right now is to keep these incredible shows that are the DNA of our network but at the same time to really look to grow new series that hopefully will join them in Fox’s animated history.
Our strategy right now is keep the shows that build our brand while at the same time creating new series and supporting those. And I think in addition to the new night that we launched this summer, I think you’ll start to see us expand beyond families into other areas and where we try to experiment a little bit creatively, like with Housebroken, and really take some chances and try to continue being the leader in animation.
This is going to be the last year for Thursday Night Football for Fox. I’m curious if you have started yet to look ahead to having that night open in the fall of 2022. Do you go a little bigger with development or think about how to reshape the schedule, or is that still too far in the distance?
I think we’re always going to be strategic in terms of how we launch our shows. But in terms of moving forward in that space, it’s TBD. But we are always talking beyond Thursday night [about] new and inventive ways to launch our shows and maximize our schedule.
Given all the recent talk about Nielsen needing to update its ratings methodology, I’m curious what your benchmarks are for success now. How do you measure that when a sizable portion of the audience isn’t watching in the traditional way?
There is no denying that viewing habits are changing. And I think there are many factors that really speak to the success of a show. We have said this I think every year, but the live plus same-day numbers are just [a small] part of the whole story.
For example, we premiered Fantasy Island this summer, and it has had approximately 140 percent lift in delayed viewing. And that show has been very successful for us this summer. When you look at the whole picture in the case of delayed viewing, linear ratings, it’s a way to keep our drama viewers engaged at Fox as we head into the fall. It’s also our first attempt in a while at a cost-effective drama.
When you look at the whole picture you start to see that there’s a successful story there. On the one hand, there is still no bigger storefront than broadcast television, right? We have incredible reach. At the same time, as you were getting at in your question, we have no choice but to rethink what a broadcast network can be.
So you’ll see Fox and Tubi really start to embrace a multipurpose strategy. We’ll be leaning into a symbiotic relationship, I think, where one can benefit the other. It’s no mistake that Tubi has the original Fantasy Island on its platform. And I think you’ll start to see us as a company try different strategies where we want to be number one in the AVOD space just like we’ve been in the broadcast space.
If you look at our acquisition of Bento Box, our new deal with Gordon Ramsay that the unscripted team made, the acquisition of Tubi — what we like to say is building a 21st century company where our broadcast network is part of fueling these other businesses and vice versa, all while being big supporters of advertising-supported platforms.
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