The 2018 Television Critics Association winter press tour is unfolding in an era of gigantic headlines, many of which rocked Hollywood throughout 2017 and will continue to do so well into this new year.
From the ongoing revelations of sexual misconduct on the part of some of Hollywood’s best-known names to the continued entry of tech companies into the world of movies and TV, the entertainment industry is changing rapidly, in ways that have brought old secrets to light and destabilized ancient ways of doing business.
But few stories will continue to have the impact of Disney’s purchase of most of the assets of 20th Century Fox, including Fox’s film and TV assets, even though the Fox Broadcasting network will remain with 20th Century Fox. (FCC regulations say Disney, which already owns ABC, can’t own more than one broadcast network.)
Because the Fox Broadcasting network was the first one to appear before reporters at the press tour, it seemed like TV journalists would get an early look at how the proposed merger will affect the network once it’s finalized, somewhere between 12 and 18 months from now.
There’s a lot on the line — especially at a time when the best way to make money with a broadcast network is to program as many shows from corporate cousins as you possibly can, something Fox will no longer be able to do with its TV production arm owned by Disney.
And when you consider that Gary Newman and Dana Walden are the presidents of both the Fox network (staying with 20th) and Fox TV studios (heading to Disney), the question of how everything will resolve becomes even more fraught.
So what did Newman and Walden have to say during their press conference with reporters? Well, do you remember that South Park underpants gnomes episode with the chart that goes Phase 1: Collect underpants. Phase 2: ? Phase 3: Profit.?
Everybody at Fox is still very much in Phase 2.
Sorting out the details of the deal will take time — but the level of uncertainty surrounding Fox’s future isn’t promising
To some degree, the level of uncertainty surrounding this deal is tied up in the emotions of the parties involved in it. The reorganization of Hollywood so that one of its “big six” studios will be mostly absorbed into an even larger studio, bringing the number of major players down to five, has implications for those of us who are concerned about media consolidation, but also for the people and properties who will inevitably be affected by it.
At Fox’s press conference, there was at least a vague undercurrent of optimism. In a post-conference scrum, Walden couldn’t say very much about where the Fox/Disney deal will go, but she did recall how shocked she was when she first heard it might happen — and then immediately pivoted to how she thinks Disney is a company that loves great storytelling and great content, suggesting some degree of adjustment.
But in later panels for Fox’s new drama 9-1-1 and venerable animated series Family Guy, the two programs’ respective creators, Ryan Murphy and Seth MacFarlane, discussed their concerns over how their more adult-skewed shows might fit uneasily under Disney’s family-friendly banner. Both said they received phone calls from Disney head Bob Iger meant to reassure them.
“I said point-blank, the stuff that I do is not specifically Disney, and I’m interested in that and I’m concerned about that, you know. Am I going to have to put Mickey Mouse in American Horror Story?” Murphy said of his call with Iger. “He was very sweet and transparent and kind. And he said, no, the reason that Disney was interested in buying Fox is because they believed in the assets and they believed in the executives and the creators.”
At the same time, Walden and Newman deflected many questions posed to them about the proposed merger with some variation on: “We have 12 to 18 months to figure out what’s going to happen.”
That might be a fair characterization of the immediate future. Renewing the solid hit The Gifted, for instance, makes sense, because when it comes back in the fall, Fox Broadcasting and Fox TV studios will still exist under the same corporate umbrella. (It also doesn’t hurt that The Gifted involves characters from Marvel Comics, which is owned by Disney.)
But once you start to look past the fall, things get a lot murkier, especially as Walden and Newman begin thinking about new shows they’d like to pick up and develop for the 2018-’19 TV season and beyond. Murkier still: contemplating whether they’ll ultimately be employees of Disney or 20th Century Fox (something that hasn’t been determined yet).
In that sense, the constant refrain of “12 to 18 months” seemed less like an honest “We don’t know yet” and more like a stalling tactic to gloss over a bunch of big, thorny issues that are almost certainly the subject of multiple internal meetings at both companies.
However, Walden did let slip one detail that I found telling.
She mentioned that there are currently a lot of independent production companies — meaning they’re not contractually bound to or affiliated with any given network — making a living by selling their shows to the many, many content buyers in the market right now. (As an example: Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale came to that streaming service from MGM TV, which has no obvious network or streaming partner and sells projects to several different networks. It also works on FX’s Fargo, for instance.)
Walden brought this up to illustrate that there are plenty of players out there who don’t have an obvious broadcast network partner.
If I were to extrapolate, I’d suggest that with so many potential programming partners out there, perhaps Fox Broadcasting could continue to exist as a network that airs a fair amount of cheap programming — game shows, reality shows, multi-camera sitcoms, etc. — but also picks and chooses some higher-profile projects to purchase from independent production houses.
Such an outcome seems unlikely, given how hard it would be to turn a profit on just about anything, at least from ad sales alone, in a world in which broadcast ratings are sliding. But it’s not impossible.
Still, it’s simultaneously easy to imagine that Walden might not even be working at Fox come 2019. Determining how the Fox and Disney deal will shake out will be one of the major stories of 2018, but for now, we’re still left grasping at speculative straws.