It’s not business as usual at Fox. But Fox TV Group chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman said the future of the network isn’t as murky as some might expect, as sister studio 20th Century Fox TV and much of the 21st Century Fox assets move to Disney.
The ‘New Fox’ network will continue to look and act much like the old Fox network on TV screens, they told reporters on Thursday at the Television Critics Association press tour. But behind the scenes, Fox will now focus on developing shows with independent studios like Sony Pictures TV, Lionsgate, MGM, Warner Bros. TV and others without a network pipeline.
“Certainly it will be the only network to operate with complete independence,” Walden said. “It will have the opportunity to pick up shows, the best shows, from any production company with no studio agenda. We see this as a great opportunity to get vibrant independent studios back on broadcast. Indies have gotten the squeeze.”
Walden said Fox will now be “an aggressive buyer from all studios and top creators.”
The irony, of course, is Fox was born in 1986 as the first network with a major studio sibling. And when the financial and syndication rules sunset at the start of the 1990s, Fox was ready to own more of its own content. In the decades since, it’s become the norm that networks own the majority of their own content — particularly in an age where programming has a long tail in the streaming and VOD world.
“Five years ago [indies] landed 16 new series on the major broadcast networks. This year, that number is just six,” Walden noted. “Not good for them or the creative vitality of the business. At New Fox, they’ll have more opportunity because the independents will be on a completely even playing field. I’m talking about companies like Sony MGM, Lionsgate, and Warners. They’ve invested in major talent and have great IP. We want to be their first choice among the Big 4 networks. The truth is, hits can come from anywhere and in fact, they already do.”
Walden also pointed out that, coincidentally, the top-rated series on ABC (“Roseanne”), CBS (“The Big Bang Theory”) and NBC (“This Is Us”) last year weren’t produced by their in-house studios.
According to Walden, Fox’s development last season was 90 percent from its own studio; this year, that will be reduced to 50 percent, with the other half coming from outside sources.
“Our long-term goal is a well-rounded schedule with projects coming from everywhere,” she added.
Also, despite adding Thursday Night Football to next season’s schedule, and “WWE Smackdown” to Fridays starting in 2019, Walden said she didn’t see the network changing its programming tone (it has already moved to more procedural/character hybrids like “9-1-1”). And she also believes the network’s shelf space hasn’t changed: “Thursday Night Football” is only for 11 weeks; and now that series air without repeats and with fewer episodes, that requires more premieres.
Fox will continue to ask for a co-ownership stake in new projects ordered at the network, but Fox won’t produce those shows.
As for existing programs like “The Simpsons,” which is an expensive program for Fox 30 years in, Walden and Newman said there are still “no plans for them to go anywhere other than Fox.”
Said Walden: “There’s so much upside and benefit to having a great Emmy-winning, smart, provocative quality show, that there’s no consideration of not ordering more Simpsons.”
Added Newman: “There’s no difference ‘The Simpsons’ on Fox with ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (another expensive series, owned by outside studio Warner Bros. TV) on CBS… I feel confident Disney and Fox will find a way to both have interest in that show. I anticipate it continuing on the Fox network.”
Walden, who is expected to move to Disney to oversee network and studio entertainment programming once the Disney/Fox deal is done, wouldn’t comment on her future position. But she did open with a joke: “Not since my kids were little have I been asked so many times about going to Disney.”
“Unfortunately we’re limited to what we can say because the approval process still ongoing,” she added. “And there are some things still to be resolved, including the management structure at both companies and what the future holds for Gary and me.”
As for current development, comedies in the works for potential midseason berths are a series from Rob McElhenney starring Leah Remini and Kaitlin Olson, and the single-camera comedy “Bless This Mess” from executive producers Liz Meriwether and Lake Bell.
On the diversity front, Walden reported that at the corporate level, 46 percent of Fox TV Group’s vice presidents and above are female. And on screen, 49 percent of series regulars are female and 45 percent are ethnically diverse.
“We’re proud to be industry leaders — although we know there’s always more work to be done,” she said.