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Fox bets big on Empire, Rob Lowe, and no reruns for fall 2015

Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Luscious (Terrence Howard) are the center of Empire, TV's most dominant show of the moment.
Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Luscious (Terrence Howard) are the center of Empire, TV's most dominant show of the moment.
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.

At Fox's annual upfront presentation — at which the network promoted its upcoming fall schedule to ad buyers — the highlight reel was dominated by footage from all those other Fox networks, like FX and Fox Sports.

There's good reason for this. Fox slipped into last place among the big four broadcast networks this year, with a disastrous fall and a spring that were only slightly mitigated by the arrival of monster hit Empire. Focusing on other parts of the corporation that are doing well is just the sort of thing ABC used to do when it was mired in fourth place. (Last year's ABC presentation, for instance, featured footage from Marvel superhero movies, the Star Wars universe, and Frozen, even though the network didn't really have much to do with any of these properties. They merely existed in the Disney corporate sphere alongside ABC.)

Still, Fox is doing some things right. Installing the heads of 20th Century Fox TV to run the network is probably the future of television as a medium, and it does have Empire, a hit so big that it may have quietly reinvigorated faith in network television. And, as always, it has a fall slate full of shows that take big swings. Even if they end up striking out, you have to give the network points for trying.

If you just want to see Fox's schedule, go here. For everybody else, here are five things I think about Fox's new lineup.

1) Fox thinks reruns are dumb

To be fair, every network thinks reruns are dumb. There's ample evidence that in this day and age, there's little to no interest from audiences in watching episodes that have already aired. If you want to catch up on a show, there are so many better ways to do so than waiting around for older episodes to air again.

To that end, Fox has done its level best to create a network schedule without any reruns at all. New Girl, which, like many Fox shows, has often been affected by the network airing playoff baseball in the fall, will be back in January, so it can air a 22-episode season pretty much straight through. Event series like a reboot of The X-Files and slasher horror-comedy Scream Queens will be handled similarly. In an era when we are probably moving toward the majority of TV series eventually seeing their entire seasons released on the same day, Netflix-style, event programming is likely an evolutionary step in the right direction.

But there's one tiny problem here: when network shows leave the air for long stretches at a time, they have a tendency to return with weaker ratings. It happened to both Gotham and Sleepy Hollow this past season, and while decreased viewership might reflect creative struggles on both series, it could also reflect audiences getting out of the habit of watching them.

Yes, cable frequently takes gigantic breaks between seasons, but cable also can focus its marketing muscle more precisely than broadcast TV can (since cable is only ever promoting a couple of series at a time). There's a reason the 22-episode season is pretty standard for broadcast networks, and Fox's new plan could confirm exactly why that's the case.

2) Corollary: Fox thinks ABC has the right idea about reruns

For years now, ABC has been playing around with the idea of airing its flagship hits in half-seasons — one in the fall and one in the spring — with a short-order series used to bridge the gap between them, usually airing in the winter. Now Fox has bought into this idea wholesale. It's airing most of its series with full-season orders using this method of programming, building to a midseason cliffhanger in the fall, taking a couple of months off, then returning with another batch of episodes.

It's a risky proposition for the reasons outlined above, but it's one that serialized shows like Empire are uniquely well-positioned to survive. After all, one of the shows ABC uses this strategy with is the similarly soapy Scandal, and that series has mostly weathered the ratings storms.

However, no network has ever applied the ABC strategy across its programming slate. Fox runs the risk that the period between seasons is particularly terrible and fallow, but it will have a few potentially bright spots stuck in there, like the X-Files limited series and major events like a live version of the musical Grease. (Yes, Fox, too, has its own live musical.)

3) New network presidents Dana Walden and Gary Newman are ready to put their stamp on the network

Right now, Fox is built on Empire, a couple of minor hits, and then a whole lot of time slots that might as well be abandoned warehouses. But Empire is huge (more in a moment), and that has validated Walden and Newman's decision to push it so heavily. It's also bought them a lot of breathing room — enough to cancel American Idol, which will end its run in the spring of 2016, after 15 seasons.

Yes, Idol was in its twilight years, and it certainly would have been finished before the end of the decade. But many networks would have squeezed even more blood from a rapidly eroding stone. By choosing to end the show at season 15, Fox doesn't just get to remind people that Idol is still on the air; it potentially gets to set the bar for how giant reality franchises wrap up.

So far, the big reality shows of the past decade and a half — series like Survivor and The Bachelor and Dancing with the Stars — are still with us. Idol will be the first to end, and that could give its final season a kind of cachet the show hasn't had in a while. Fox loves its programming stunts, and you have to figure the network will do whatever it can to, say, reunite the original judges' panel for one night only, or haul original co-host Brian Dunkleman out of mothballs. (During an early morning conference call, Walden joked that she wasn't sure where he was.)

But more importantly, ending Idol indicates that Walden and Newman aren't going to be too precious about Fox's past. They realize the network's schedule needs a makeover via wrecking ball, and they're willing to deal with a few seasons of failure to get to a rebuilding phase.

4) Empire is worth dozens of flops

Of course, Empire has bought the two network heads a lot of time. It's impossible to overstate just how big the show is, and as Vulture's Joe Adalian reports, the show's success has got some network execs believing network TV is a viable business again, after years of assuming they were managing its slow decline.

Walden and Newman declined to get too cocky during their presentation, except when it came to Empire; first they rattled off all of the categories of TV that the show was number one in, and then they turned over the stage to a lengthy musical performance from the show's cast.

Yes, talking about Empire so extensively could seem a bit redundant, but it's the best thing Fox has going right now, and as long as it's healthy, the network will have some breathing room to rebuild.

5) The Grinder is an early contender for next season's most promising new show

The trailers Fox showed at its presentation ranged from baffling (The Frankenstein Code, about a cop who is brought back to life after dying) to bland (Grandfathered, about John Stamos learning he has an adult son and a grandchild) to bafflingly bland (Lucifer, about the devil himself coming to our plane and ... helping solve mysteries, because of course).

But the new comedy The Grinder seems to have wit, intelligence, and spark, along with a promising cast. Rob Lowe is always at his best when playing a blowhard buffoon, and his character here is a guy who became famous playing a lawyer on TV and believes he has what it takes to join his family's real-life law practice. Fred Savage (yes, from The Wonder Years) is his fulminating brother, with the wonderful Mary Elizabeth Ellis as Savage's wife. (Also, William Devane plays both Lowe and Savage's father, making this the second time Devane has played Savage's dad. Previously, it was on the short-lived sitcom Crumbs.)

Yeah, that could be a bit too high-concept, but the trailer elicited some big laughs, and it also didn't suggest that women are either mysterious beasts who are impossible to figure out and/or no-fun killjoys, like so many other network trailers. That that's progress is a little sad, but it definitely left me wanting to check out The Grinder.

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