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.
Hey, did you know that Fox is probably going to be the No. 2 network of the 2016-’17 TV season in the advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic, once all the counting is done? (The TV season technically ends Wednesday, May 24, but the network’s lead over third-place CBS is comfortable.) Because I sure as hell didn’t, and I cover the industry.
However, the reasons for Fox’s recent success are largely out of its control. Namely, network television is falling apart (Vulture has charts!), but live events are not. And do you know what Fox had on its schedule this past season? An exciting Super Bowl and the very first World Series won by the Chicago Cubs in more than a century. It obviously can’t repeat that one-two punch in the coming TV season (especially since the 2018 Super Bowl will air on NBC).
But Fox still has little green shoots of growth here and there. The network is pretty obviously in a rebuilding phase, but you can sort of see a way it could keep up its momentum next season, thanks to solid if unspectacular shows like Lethal Weapon and promising-in-theory performers like the comedy The Mick. The X-Files will be back at midseason. And even if it’s nowhere near as big as it was in early 2015, Empire is still a big hit at half the audience size.
So Fox is in a weird space where if things break right, it might have a shot at staying in second place next year. (NBC, with both the Super Bowl and Olympics, will be in first place, barring the apocalypse.) But if things break wrong, it will look like Fox overplayed its hand. In the meantime, here are five observations about the network’s recently announced fall schedule.
1) Everybody smells blood in the water on Thursday nights — but Fox’s strategy is kinda weird
With the flagging strength of Scandal (which is reportedly ending after its next season anyway) and CBS’s ongoing struggle to launch additional comedies at 9 pm, there’s a big hole in one of TV’s most profitable time slots. (Movie studios still like advertising their upcoming blockbusters on Thursday nights, hence the profitability.)
NBC has responded by leading off with the returning Will & Grace, putting This Is Us (a major hit) at 9 pm and then ending the evening with a Law & Order true crime miniseries about the Menendez brothers. It’s an intimidating lineup, but also one that skews toward the older end of the 18- to 49-year-old demographic (a.k.a. people who are more likely to have kids and/or remember the Menendez brothers). We don’t know what CBS and ABC will do in that time slot yet, but odds are the latter will stand pat with its Shonda Rhimes dramas.
So Fox sees an opening with shows targeted at young men. It’s moving its Batman prequel Gotham to 8 pm, then following it with the Seth MacFarlane hour-long sci-fi comedy The Orville at 9. All of this sounds good in theory, until you remember two things.
The first is that Gotham is entering its fourth season and lost more than a quarter of its audience in its third. Some of the folks who left may be catching up with the show later on streaming or buying DVD sets (lol) or something, but as far as Fox is concerned, they don’t exist because advertisers aren’t paying to reach them. A time slot move is a weird idea at this point in the show’s run.
The second thing to remember is that Thursday night is also home of Thursday night football at the start of the TV season, which happens to draw a healthy number of the young men that Fox is targeting. Even though Fox will probably delay some of its premiere dates to make room for the World Series, and even though NFL ratings are down, scheduling two shows that explicitly target dudes on a night that pits them against football still seems like a bizarre idea.
Then again, that’s the perpetual problem when you’re a network with a lot of promising bricks but few solid foundational pieces: Eventually those bricks have to start pulling their weight, and some of them inevitably won’t.
2) FOX IS BIGGER THAN EVERYBODY ELSE
Obviously Fox isn’t actually TV’s biggest network, but during its May 15 upfront presentation, the network tried like hell to convince you that actual viewership data doesn’t matter. What does is the size and sizzle of your ideas.
It’s an idea that has largely worked for NBC — which has ridden a long string of seeming stunts (live musicals, etc.) to ratings dominance — so why not blatantly copy that network’s strategy? It’s a time-honored tradition in the industry, after all! NBC is going to do a live Jesus Christ Superstar? Well, Fox will do two live musicals (A Christmas Story and Rent). NBC has lots of sporting events? Well, Fox has the NFL, Major League Baseball, and college football. It has game shows! It has all manner of crazy things!
The problem is that as far as strategy goes, “Just have a lot of random things” doesn’t work unless you have a cohesive strategy. (NBC president Bob Greenblatt, for instance, loves the razzle-dazzle of a big, big show.) The times when Fox feels most like Fox are the times when it leans into the network’s history of taking big swings and leaning into its love of brand names.
The Gifted, for instance, is the kind of big Fox show that has worked for the network in the past. It’s got some solid auspices (like Burn Notice creator Matt Nix writing and blockbuster director Bryan Singer directing), plus it’s an X-Men show. But the “let’s do some big-name sci-fi” idea (which encompasses both The Gifted, The Orville, and the upcoming comedy Ghosted) doesn’t really mesh with the “also, here are some big events” idea.
And when it comes down to the show that the ad buyers seated around me at Fox’s upfront seemed most interested in? That would be the rather standard-issue medical drama The Resident. Sometimes TV needs to be a little safe and boring. NBC gets that. I’m not sure Fox does.
3) Fox doesn’t have a reality franchise to call its own
With American Idol (which long propelled Fox to the top of the ratings almost singlehandedly) decamping for ABC, Fox finds itself without a cornerstone reality franchise, unless you count Gordon Ramsay as a franchise unto himself. (Maybe we should! His shows generally do pretty well, even if they don’t take up the real estate of a Voice or American Idol.)
Fox presidents Dana Walden and Gary Newman downplayed this void during a conference call with reporters Monday morning, saying they’re always looking for new reality ideas, and that American Idol studio Fremantle wanted to start up all over again with an expensive judges panel, which Fox wasn’t interested in. (Though Idol is, in theory, cheap to produce, salaries for judges made it one of the most expensive reality shows around when it was on the air.) Walden and Newman had also said in 2016 — right after Idol ended — that Fox wouldn’t want to bring the show back for a while.
To a degree, this makes sense. Fox is just starting to redefine itself as a network without its longtime hit, while ABC is in last place and banking on some sort of nostalgic miracle to propel it forward. What often moves a network forward is some sort of crazy risk, like leaning hard into reality TV, a format that hasn’t had a significant hit since The Voice debuted in 2011. But it’s easier to take crazy risks when you’re in last place than when you’re in second.
4) Fox will apparently revive pretty much anything property other than American Idol, then never cancel it
Fox found huge success in 2016 with its six-episode X-Files miniseries, so it’s going to try doing another one in 2018. (This time, there will be 10 episodes!) But the network’s other recent revivals — including two different whacks at bringing back 24 and a Prison Break sequel thing — have mostly fizzled out.
Amazingly, Walden seemed interested in the notion of having more of both of these shows, neither of which is officially canceled. (Prison Break’s situation, which requires finding room in the cast’s calendars, is slightly different from 24: Legacy, which is a genuine attempt to do 24 with a completely new cast.)
Somewhat bizarrely, in fact, Walden suggested during Fox’s conference call that a decision hasn’t been made about Legacy because star Corey Hawkins is currently starring on Broadway in a revival of Six Degrees of Separation. This, despite the fact that Six Degrees of Separation also stars Allison Janney, who has a TV show of her own to return to: CBS’s Mom, which was renewed without a hitch. The numbers would suggest there’s no reason to do more Legacy (its ratings are very bad), but Fox can’t let any recognizable brand name die, dammit.
Walden ultimately discussed, at length, her thoughts on how various 20th Century Fox-owned properties would fare as potential reboot fodder. Bones? Why not, if creator Hart Hanson has a story he wants to tell and David Boreanaz can come back! Then again, a Bones reboot in the form of several made-for-TV movies is the sort of move that would make sense, which is more than I can say for some TV revivals.
Most perplexingly, Walden brought up How I Met Your Mother — which Fox owns, even though it aired on CBS — as a show she hopes will return in some form, someday. (To be clear, she didn’t suggest that talks to that effect have happened or will happen.) That show ended with a pretty definitive conclusion, in which one character died, but hey, Will & Grace had a super-definitive finale, too, and that didn’t stop NBC from resurrecting it.
5) Fox really is the future of the TV industry
Way, way back in the misty age of 2014, I suggested that Walden and Newman’s ascension to the throne at Fox TV, while they were also the presidents of 20th Century Fox Television (the studio that produces TV shows both for Fox and for other networks — including This Is Us, which airs on NBC, and Modern Family, which airs on ABC), was the future of television.
The ties between networks and studios owned by their corporate overlords have only continued to tighten, leading to just these sorts of relationships, where Newman and Walden’s best bet is sometimes to sell their best pilot and best chance at a breakout hit to a network other than the one they actually oversee (as happened with This Is Us). Meanwhile, they can populate their own airwaves by mining their studio’s back catalog for reboot fodder.
And yet with Fox’s new schedule, another shoe has dropped, because Fox has picked up no shows from studios other than its sister studio for the 2017-’18 season. (Something similar happened at NBC, which almost solely picked up shows produced by NBCUniversal.) The best way to make money in TV now that the old method of drawing big ratings and selling ads is fading away is to just own as many pieces of as many shows as you can, and Fox is increasingly our best example of that approach.