Everything old is New Fox again. As the network prepares to transform into something slightly different in the coming years, hints about what a streamlined Fox might look like once 21st Century Fox sells its production assets are starting to emerge.
Perhaps the most glaring example of that has taken place in the past week, as Fox axed critically acclaimed but low-rated fare including the comedies “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (which was rescued by NBC, which already produced the show through its Universal TV studio), “The Mick,” and “The Last Man on Earth.”
None of those cancellations came as a huge surprise, as these shows were all “on the bubble” — TV parlance for shows in danger of not being renewed.
But the swift decision to get rid of all three at once did trigger a bit of a shock, and sent a message to both the industry and fans: The Fox once known as the renegade home for edgy, unconventional fare has been shifting for some time into the mainstream, but now it’s all in. Dubbed internally as “New Fox,” the network appears to be relying much more on tried-and-true broadcast staples — multi-camera comedies, procedural dramas, live sports — to attract the (yes, older-skewing and perhaps more middle America) audience watching broadcast television.
Nothing demonstrates that more than the decision to revive “Last Man Standing,” a Tim Allen sitcom that had been off the air for a year after ABC cancelled it in 2017. The success of “Roseanne,” a multi-cam sitcom whose star, like Allen, espouses a conservative viewpoint, convinced Fox to give it a go. (The “Roseanne” effect, spawning the most multi-camera contenders in years, has spread across the networks.)
Fox’s sister studio 20th Century Fox TV produces “Last Man Standing,” which made it easy to revive there. As a matter of fact, all of Fox’s new shows come from 20th. Yet Fox and 20th will soon part ways as siblings, as Disney aims to purchase 21st Century Fox’s TV and film studios (as well as networks including FX).
Without a studio, Fox will lose one of the main goals of having a network (and one of the chief reasons it was launched in the first place): providing a home for programs that it owns and can profit from in success.
What Fox will now rely on even more as its raison d’être is to service the growing stable of local TV stations that it owns (having just bought several more from Sinclair), in addition to its affiliate groups; and also, profiting from ad dollars.
Station owners are a notoriously conservative bunch, and likely the folks at Fox’s owned stations and affiliates cheered the “Last Man Standing” news. They’re looking for broad, mainstream fare that can attract the most eyeballs, and more importantly, the most ad dollars.
“Last Man Standing” wasn’t a huge hit, but it was a solid performer — particularly with total viewers. And if New Fox is going for big tent rather than more hard-to-reach younger viewers (who aren’t watching much network or local TV these days anyway), then it may be ripping a page from the CBS playbook: Buzz is nice, but the mainstream brings a larger overall audience.
It’s perhaps not a bad strategy: As audiences continue to gravitate toward streaming and digital platforms, there’s still a (granted, older) audience that will continue to watch linear TV for the forseeable future. A broadcaster that caters to that audience and provides them with fare they can’t find elsewhere might thrive a lot longer in these rapidly changing times. The recent success of “9-1-1,” which is essentially a primetime procedural with a Ryan Murphy/Fox twist, validates that strategy.
And if New Fox is also relying heavily on local stations to keep its ecosystem humming, those mainstream shows are likely a better fit for those stations’ news audiences. That includes both primetime and off-network syndication — and it’s worth noting that, as noted by Fox in picking up the show, “Last Man Standing” ranked as the No. 1 new program across all syndication when it debuted off-net during the 2016-2017 season.
Besides “Last Man Standing,” the network’s new series include “The Cool Kids,” a multi-camera comedy featuring a cast of comedy legends all above 50: Vicki Lawrence, Martin Mull, David Alan Grier, and Leslie Jordan. There’s also a legal procedural drama (“Proven Innocent”) and another multi-cam sitcom, “Rel,” starring Lil Rel Howery. Among returning shows are the first-responder procedural drama “9-1-1” and medical drama “The Resident.”
One insider familiar with the network’s operations believes some of this is the handiwork of Lachlan Murdoch, who will have an active role in the new slimmed-down 21st Century Fox. Murdoch cut his teeth at the then–News Corp. by operating the Fox Television Stations, and is said to share his father Rupert Murdoch’s desire for more mainstream fare. (The elder Murdoch is said to have not been a fan of Fox’s more unconventional fare — the stuff that critics love and earns tons of buzz and awards, but not necessarily wide audiences.)
Now, as it moves away from any concern over studio backend, Rupert Murdoch has already suggested that live sports — football in particular — are such an important part of the New Fox strategy.
As it gets out of the studio business, Fox can comfortably devote more of its 15 hours a week to sports and other live events without limiting the shelf space for shows it owns. In a big move, the company outbid NBC and CBS to take over the NFL’s contract for Thursday Night Football for five seasons beginning this fall.
Fox will spend $550 million annually for Thursday Night Football, which fills an entire night for most of fall. The network has already renewed seven-and-a-half hours of scripted programming for next season: the hourlong “9-1-1,” “Empire,” “The Gifted,” “The Orville,” “The Resident,” “Star,” and half-hour programs “Bob’s Burgers,” “Family Guy,” and “The Simpsons.” As of this report, “Ghosted,” “Gotham,” “LA to Vegas,” and “Lethal Weapon” (impacted by cast issues) are still up in the air.
But add in unscripted fare and sports, along with the new shows, and its schedule in this Brave New Fox World is starting to take shape.