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The future of Fox might look a lot like TV’s past

Taraji P. Henson is the best thing about Fox's new hit Empire.
Taraji P. Henson is the best thing about Fox's new hit Empire.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Dana Walden and Gary Newman took over the Fox television network last summer. They were already the heads of Fox's television studio, where they'd had great success with shows as varied as Glee, Modern Family, and 24. At the time — as I and many others wrote — this was seen as simultaneously a historic consolidation of roles and something like a major part of television's future.

The more that ratings fall, the more it becomes necessary to make money off of shows in unlikely ways. And that means outright owning shows, instead of licensing them from an outside studio. For an example of this, look at Fox's own Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is developed by NBC-Universal. Fox collects the money from ad sales on that show; NBC-Universal gets the money from sales of syndication, foreign, streaming, and cable rights. Thus, the concern has always been that Newman and Walden would use their old job to funnel product to their new job, shutting out other studios.

That hasn't exactly happened. One of the network's big new hits is Gotham, from Warner Bros., and there's also the aforementioned Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is slowly building an audience for itself on Sundays, sandwiched between The Simpsons and Family Guy. The network's biggest new hit, Empire, comes from Fox Television, to be sure, but Walden and Newman really have been treating shows from other studios well. Fox renewed all three of these shows early, meaning two of its early renewals were from studios other than Fox.

But what was most interesting about Walden and Newman's first executive session at a Television Critics Association press tour was the way that their plan for their network, as much as it seems like a major part of the future of television, is looking to TV's past.

Looking to the past

Walden and Newman's predecessor was Kevin Reilly, an executive who never met a potentially medium-changing idea he didn't like. Last year, for instance, he famously killed pilot season, a somewhat disastrous decision that left Walden and Newman with virtually no product to slide on air when many of Reilly's new fall shows bombed. Officially, Reilly left his job, but it's not hard to imagine a scenario where he was pushed out because his desire to turn Fox into a boutique cable network didn't gibe with broadcast's need to draw as big of an audience as possible. (Reilly is now running TNT and TBS — over on cable.)

Walden and Newman's attitude, as best expressed in this Hollywood Reporter profile of the two of them, is that broadcast can only survive if it pulls in the biggest audience possible, which means returning to some of TV's most well-worn genres, then finding some new twist to put on them.

Both Gotham and Empire are solid examples of this, actually. Gotham has had its creative struggles in trying to go too big, too quickly, and incorporate every single Batman character ever. But it's also, at its heart, a cop show, just one set in the Batman universe. Similarly, Empire is a glossy primetime soap that wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1980s, but it's set in the world of hip-hop, which is a fairly new setting for such a thing. (And it certainly doesn't hurt that it's a beautifully executed '80s soap, with Taraji P. Henson giving her very best Joan Collins in Dynasty impersonation.)

Walden and Newman addressed the controversy swirling around Empire's star, Terrence Howard, as well. Despite several domestic abuse allegations against the star, Walden insisted that the network's history with the star has been positive — he's also in the upcoming miniseries Wayward Pines — and that it was only made aware of the accusations in December (despite the fact that a Google of Howard very quickly reveals articles from last summer, and network background checks are surely more thorough than that). Empire's success means the two are stuck, no matter how much of an outcry arises against Howard.

Walden and Newman have gotten further evidence of broadcast's potential to reach wider audiences with slight twists on old formats in the world of reality. Utopia, meant to be a big, bold new step for the reality genre, completely bombed, but the network's MasterChef Junior has turned into a stealth hit that has grown year-over-year from last season. It has the executives believing that after years of crass, edgy programming dominating the reality game, it might be time for family-friendly spins on the genre to gain ground.

The future of television, in other words, is basically the past of television, slightly remixed. And even if the broadcast networks' lead over cable slips more and more every year, they're still generally the most watched on television. Being most watched requires drawing in something larger than a niche audience.

Walden even made Fox sound a little like something out of P.T. Barnum, when asked what she saw as the network's brand. "I would hope ultimately that the network is recognized for great showmanship," she said.

The problems here

But aiming for the largest possible audience has its flip side, which means adhering to some of the old TV rules that now seem impossibly outdated — like the one about every episode having to be self-contained, rather than serialized.

There were an inordinate number of questions in the press conference about the collapse of Sleepy Hollow and whether the network would renew it. The gonzo horror series is one of TV's hardest to classify — it's caught somewhere between romance, modern cop show, ghost story, and period drama — and if that unpredictable quality made for a lot of fun in season one, the show's all-consuming mythology (its ongoing, overarching story about battling demons from Hell) has, well, consumed it in season two.

Walden's suggested solution to this — one she says the producers share? Ditch some of the serialization and head back toward something more close-ended, though it's hard to imagine the show ever becoming completely episodic.

But how much would something like that push away the show's core fanbase, which is really into the twisting, winding story? If so much TV now is a balance between telling stories that take whole seasons to tell, versus stories that are wrapped in a single episode, then much of it is also about balancing the medium's potential against what viewers already know it does well, the future versus the past, in other words.

But this is still, increasingly, a business about finding margins that can be managed toward. The two have had conversations about resurrecting The X-Files, for instance, similarly to how Fox resurrected 24 as a miniseries last summer. And Newman talked at length about an attempt to renew the show Red Band Society, which struggled almost immediately in the ratings but drew a solid number among teenagers. Fox went to ABC Studios (which produced the show) and offered to pick it up for episodes to run next summer, at a reduced licensing fee.

It was a deal ABC ultimately couldn't make, but it speaks to the dilemma Walden and Newman face as they try to resurrect their fourth place network. On one side, there's attempting to squeeze as much money as possible out of shows that have no ratings to speak of. And on the other, there's the hope that broadcast will somehow return to its glory days, with hit after hit after hit. But not every show can be Empire, and Empire's numbers would have seemed anemic even 15 years ago. There's no easy answer, but at least Walden and Newman are playing toward both sides.