Every May, the TV networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers at an event called the upfronts. They aim to sell their new shows to ad buyers at the highest possible price, while the ad buyers try to stay skeptical. It's an antiquated ritual that, nonetheless, is enormously important to the business of TV, and we'll be there all week.
Fox is in a weird, weird place right now. On the one hand, almost every series it throws onto the air seems to spiral out into nothingness. The network will brag about its hit shows like New Girl or The Last Man on Earth, but neither of those programs attracted more than 4 million live viewers for any single episode in the 2015-'16 TV season. That's low.
On the other hand, Fox is also the network that has Empire, and even if Empire is no longer the massive, world-beating hit it was in its first season, it's still one of a handful of TV shows that pull in a huge audience, week after week after week.
Yet the network's attempts to launch shows that might supplement Empire have been middling at best. The medical detective drama Rosewood has performed adequately, but most of the other shows Fox launched last fall (including the enjoyable comedies The Grinder and Grandfathered) were sacrificed on the pyre of low-rated TV shows. It's a network with an identity crisis, one that keeps trying too desperately to lean on past hits — just ask the rebooted 24, arriving in early 2017.
But Fox is still Fox. The network still takes wild swings that sometimes pay off and sometimes result in wild misfires; at the very least, they're always interesting. And that means Fox is still worth paying attention to. After attending the network's upfront presentation, here are five observations about its fall 2016 schedule.
1) Fox overrelies on brand recognition
It's tricky to name the network that's most convinced of the idea that if you've heard, say, the movie title Lethal Weapon at any point in the past, you'll be immediately drawn to a TV show based on the film franchise of the same name.
And to be sure, every network employs this line of thinking, but Fox's undying commitment to it is especially disappointing, because the network gets burned by it all the time.
Just last fall, it threw in its lot with Minority Report, a TV show based on the Steven Spielberg movie. The show was dead on arrival, from a Nielsen perspective. And it's also the network that was unable to make Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (which ran from 2008 to 2009) a hit and will launch a new Exorcist series this fall.
Even the network's first attempt to reboot 24 in 2014 (as a Jack Bauer–centric miniseries) was a mild ratings disappointment.
Yet Fox keeps heading back toward the familiar, to the degree that the show it spent the most time hyping during its upfront presentation was the aforementioned 24 reboot, which doesn't feature the franchise's longtime protagonist, Jack Bauer, at all. Is it possible that the combination of the show's real-time format and lead character played by star-in-the-making Corey Hawkins will yield a hit show worth watching? Sure. But why not hire Hawkins and build some other action franchise around him?
The answer, of course, is that new properties are harder to promote than more established ones. The 24 name carries some cachet, and Fox's plan to launch the first episode of 24: Legacy after the Super Bowl means the show will have a guaranteed audience for its debut. But it's still a huge gamble on what is ultimately, a new series.
Fox seems as if it desperately wants its own franchise, along the lines of CBS's NCIS shows or NBC's Chicago family of workplace dramas. But it's been trying and failing to produce one for years. The Fox "brand" is perhaps too inextricably linked with wild, outside-the-box concepts at this point. People don't tune in to Fox for the familiar; they tune in for storytelling that will seem exciting for roughly 18 months, before going wildly off the rails.
2) But Fox also has a lot of good stuff in its vaults — stuff it hopes to endlessly exploit
Fox's revival of The X-Files as a miniseries briefly took over television in January and February 2016; heartened by that, the network has pulled everything out of its storage facility to see what's worth reviving. (One show that doesn't need to be revived: The Simpsons, which has run continuously since 1989 and will surpass 600 episodes in the fall. It's within spitting distance of Gunsmoke's 635-episode all-time record for a scripted series.)
To that end, the network has brought back not only 24 but also Prison Break, complete with its original cast (including several characters who were declared dead at one point or another in the show's original run). As with NBC's fall 2015 reboot of Heroes — another four-season show that enjoyed a brief moment in the sun before the American viewing public cooled on it — a Prison Break reboot seems like a foolhardy notion, but what do I know?
Yes, there's another prison to break out of, but this one appears to be in Turkey; the premise is a riff on the classic prison drama Midnight Express, although Midnight Express was a serious film, not the kind of pulpy potboiler that Prison Break was at its best. What's more, based on the back-to-back trailers Fox showed for 24: Legacy and the new Prison Break, it appears the network's new fall shows will heavily feature stereotypical Islamic villains, which is maybe not the greatest idea.
3) Fortunately, Fox has a tremendous comedy development team
Now, Fox can't get anybody to watch its comedies, but it still deserves praise for putting New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Bob's Burgers, and a host of canceled favorites on the air over the past few years. The network boasts a seriously impressive track record — give or take a famous critical flop like Mulaney or Dads.
Fox's comedy development process seems to involve a lot of high-concept ideas, which can be dangerous in comedy, where premises wear thin very quickly. And, indeed, the network's new slate for 2016 to 2017 includes one sitcom where a cartoon barbarian returns to live-action suburbia to reconnect with the son he left behind, and another about time travel (starring TV favorites Adam Pally and Leighton Meester). Whether these shows will have any staying power remains to be seen, but at least they're swinging for the fences.
Meanwhile, the funniest trailer shown at upfronts thus far belongs to Fox's deliberately low-concept The Mick — which is basically just "poor sister has to take care of her rich sister's kids." Kaitlin Olson (of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame) stars in what will hopefully be her breakout role, and her involvement speaks to how good Fox is at comedic casting, even when a show is less immediately exciting at a premise level.
4) Fox is really going to miss American Idol
American Idol was well past its prime long before it closed up shop in April. Its ratings were rarely worth all the money Fox spent on the show's all-star judging panel. But it was also a reality show that ate up lots and lots of airtime every spring, and its absence now means that Fox has to fill all of that real estate, largely with original scripted programming, most of which will inevitably bomb.
Maybe I'm wrong. After all, Empire is holding down the fort on Wednesdays, so it could potentially boost the ratings of its 8 pm lead-in (not that it helped push Rosewood to huge ratings success). But this is still a world where American Idol was an old but dependable warhorse that Fox now needs to completely replace, from the ground up.
There's really no precedent for such a scenario in American TV history, outside of the time ABC doubled down on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and destroyed much of its lineup for years after viewers tired of it. American Idol lived a natural life span, but it was such a huge presence on Fox — and so important to its survival, helping it grow from a perpetual third- or fourth-place network into the behemoth it ultimately became — that it's hard to imagine the show won't be missed, at least a little bit, come spring 2017.
5) None of the network's new shows look like hits, but maybe that's okay
Does the world need a TV version of The Exorcist (somewhat cleverly paired with the reality show Hell's Kitchen)? Nah. But can I imagine myself binge-watching all of its episodes some rainy Saturday next February? I absolutely can.
All four major networks are looking toward the long term in some way or another. NBC is trying to get advertisers to stop thinking of its shows as part of a lineup and embrace them as individual entertainment units. ABC has talked endlessly about shaping its brand. And CBS is building its own streaming service with a new Star Trek series as a centerpiece. But Fox seems most inclined to just let stuff ride as long as it sees some sort of upside in terms of future revenue from streaming services.
All of which is to say that a show like The Last Man on Earth might have poor ratings, but it almost doesn't need to have great ratings, because its first season did well enough on Hulu to make it valuable as an exclusive to that service. The same is true of a show like Sleepy Hollow and even a megahit like Empire (which are both also Hulu exclusives). Fox loves having big hits — just like any network — but it's also increasingly okay with modest performers that play into its brand and don't stink up the joint too badly.
The definition of a modest performer is shifting every day. For instance, not too long ago I thought either The Grinder or Grandfathered might qualify as such, but Fox evidently disagreed, as it canceled both shows. There's still some sort of ratings floor through which shows aren't allowed to fall.
But that floor sinks a little bit lower every day. When you're Fox, and shows might as well be advertisements for things you might binge-watch on some rainy weekend in the future, why wouldn't it get lower? And until the network finally finds its cellar, the network will just keep hauling out old stuff from the vaults, in hopes you might watch TV again.