Fall schedule analysis: Fox bets everything on Europeans

Fall schedule analysis: Fox bets everything on Europeans

David Tennant and Anna Gunn in Gracepoint (Fox)
David Tennant and Anna Gunn in Gracepoint (Fox)

As Erik Adams mentioned in his post announcing Fox’s schedule for next fall, the network has rolled out an idea for year-round TV that has all of the rapid-fire patter of a carnival barker. What? You dont want to watch a bunch of regular schmoes create the perfect society? Well, that’s just fine, because Fox has a guy jumping Snake Canyon! And if that’s not to your liking, what about Batman? (This show will not feature Batman.) There’s good reason for all of this wild shifting around of assets and misguided enthusiasm: Fox is absolutely in the tank this spring. There are some networks—ABC—that would just blithely pretend everything is terrific, but that’s not really Fox president Kevin Reilly’s style. He will gladly acknowledge how much everything sucks, before immediately segueing into a song and dance number to distract you. 

The fall actually showed some glimmers of hope for the network, with Sleepy Hollow a massive hit and a sense that the Tuesday comedy bloc had stabilized, even if it was never going to be the huge ratings hit Fox had hoped for when it created it back in the spring of 2012. Yes, The X Factor was a disaster, Glee was struggling, and Animation Domination seemed a bit shakier than it had in recent years, but all was more or less well. The network even got a surprising amount of mileage out of MasterChef Junior, and a World Series featuring the Red Sox and Cardinals (two of baseball’s most popular teams) did fairly well, too. It wasn’t the network’s best year ever, but it thought it had a chance to use the Super Bowl and perennial American Idol to vault itself into second place.

Instead, even with the Super Bowl, the spring turned into a disaster area. The Super Bowl was the Super Bowl, but giving New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine the timeslot after the game didn’t result in appreciable ratings increases for either. (Indeed, Nine-Nine actually slumped, though that accompanied a timeslot move to the theoretically more protected 9:30 p.m. slot.) Glee moved back to Tuesdays and promptly started posting the sorts of numbers that got other shows canceled, but Fox was already stuck with a sixth season it would have to air at some point in the 2014-15 season. Almost Human performed pretty well, but it was no Sleepy Hollow, while The Following plummeted from the highs it had reached in season one. Reilly blames a lot of this on counting on second year “bounces” that just don’t come anymore, but that won’t account for Idol, which deteriorated dramatically this year, as audiences finally seemed to just get tired of it. The network will reduce the show’s order next year, turning it into a once-a-week, two-hour show, instead of having it take up three hours every week. It’s part of its bid to manage the show into a format in which it can run for many more years, like CBS’ Survivor, but it also seems like it should have been done a few seasons ago to have that effect.

So clearly, Fox needs some major help. Here’s what the network is planning. It involves a lot of betting on Europe, which you don’t hear often these days.

Mondays
8 p.m.: GOTHAM
9 p.m.: Sleepy Hollow

Here’s Fox pressing the advantage it has on the one night of the week where it possesses an advantage. Assuming the network properly promotes the return of Sleepy Hollow (and you just know it will), then pairing it with the DC Comics-inspired Gotham seems like pretty masterful scheduling. It’s easy to imagine geeking out over this night for most of the fall. Both shows will have higher orders than “just” 13 episodes, too, with Gotham looking like it will run 16 episodes and Sleepy Hollow expanding to 18. Whether the latter can make its patented “crazypants banana sauce” storytelling work over that number of episodes remains to be seen, but this is the one night where Fox can probably breathe easily. The only challenge is promotion, and this night seems easily promotable.

Tuesdays
8 p.m.: UTOPIA
9 p.m.: New Girl
9:30 p.m.: The Mindy Project

Here’s where Fox starts betting big on its friends across the Atlantic. Basically, if Utopia doesn’t work, then Fox may as well wave goodbye to its entire season. The show is based on a popular Dutch format, where strangers are isolated from the world and invited to built the “perfect society,” hopefully with lots of sexy shenanigans along the way. (This is not really that strange. Most of our major reality hits are based on European formats. The ones we come up with ourselves tend to be of the “reality soap” variety.) One of the ideas behind the show is that it could, theoretically, run forever, if the contestants are enjoying themselves and they’re constantly working toward said perfect society. If they ever actually achieve it, though, we guess the show ends? And everybody in the world starts redrafting their constitutions? Anyway, we don’t know, because we’re not Dutch. (Confidential memo to any Dutch people: Did you guys accidentally build the perfect society on reality television earlier? Inquiring minds want to know.)  Fox is aware that if Utopia doesn’t work, it’s in serious trouble. As such, it’s beginning the series six weeks before the TV season begins. It’s the kind of gambit the Fox of old was known for, and the vast majority of big reality hits have started out in the summer. But the last breakout reality sensation was The Voice a few seasons back. Betting big on reality may not seem like such a good move come the fall. Then again, when have the Dutch ever let us down?

All of this leads into New Girl and The Mindy Project. The former was substantially hurt when it lost its Glee lead-in way back in the halcyon days of 2012. Fox is hoping it can regain just a smidgin of its former live viewership by having a stronger lead-in, to which we can only say: Good luck. Mindy Project will only run 15 episodes next season and seems like it’s reached the stage of its life where it keeps getting renewed because its studio cuts increasingly lucrative deals to get it to syndication. Which is one way to keep Adam Pally employed, we guess.

Wednesdays
8 p.m.: Hell’s Kitchen
9 p.m.: RED BAND SOCIETY

When it comes to stalwarts who can protect the company, there are few workhorses Fox turns to as often as Gordon Ramsay. Putting Hells Kitchen on in the fall is not the most glamorous of moves, but it gives the network one hour of the week it doesn’t really have to promote. The show should garner a consistent (if low) number, and it’s not very expensive to produce. It’s not a bad idea. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Red Band Society, which is also based on a show from Europe (Italy Spain, in this case), and features lots of easily promotable elements with its cute kids and Oscar-winning lead (Octavia Spencer). The show’s subject matter—kids in a hospital—doesn’t seem like breakout hit material, but this is a weak timeslot all over television, and if Fox can find the right campaign for this one, people will at least sample it. More likely than not, it won’t, and they won’t. But it’s not a bad strategy.

Thursdays
8 p.m.: Bones
9 p.m.: GRACEPOINT

Left unstated in how desperate these Wednesday and Thursday schedules seem is that Fox canceled The X Factor, forcing it to scramble to fill time it didn’t expect to have to fill for years to come. (It will have the same problem when it shrinks Idol in the spring.) Really, it’s not hard to imagine the network’s “year-round” strategy evolving out of its panic at having to fill the giant holes left by X Factor. Anyway, Bones is back where it ran for years, and while it’s been dinged by time and is much less fresh than it had been while entering its 10th season, it should also do well enough here for Fox not to have to worry about it. It’ll hold a consistent number, even against football. Meanwhile, Gracepoint is yet another adaptation of a European series (this one the British Broadchurch), but this one is scheduled to run a set number of episodes and conclude its story. That turned the show into a phenomenon in the United Kingdom (though it’s apparently coming back at some point); will it here? Again, I don’t particularly think Thursday Night Football is going to be as huge as many analysts think, and Fox is doing some smart counter-programming with a murder mystery with a terrific female lead (played by Anna Gunn on our shores). It’s a huge risk, but it’s one with big upside, and if it doesn’t work, at least the show is off the air forever with all its loose ends tied up when 2015 starts.

Fridays
8 p.m.: Masterchef Junior
9 p.m.: UTOPIA

Once again, Fox bets heavily on Utopia, though running it on Fridays is less of a substantial bet than running it on Tuesdays. If the show works, here’s another free hour of it. If it doesn’t, the network can collapse it down to just the Friday airing no problem. MasterChef Junior was a surprise success last fall, so it’s back, just as you knew it would be. Kevin Reilly takes Gordon Ramsay to the top of Pride Rock to tell him he will someday be king of all the light touches.

Saturdays
7 p.m.: College football

Football, football, football! (Seriously, the success of college football on a throwaway night for both Fox and ABC makes us wonder why either network isn’t pursuing a relatively cheap college basketball package for this night in the winter.)

Sundays
7 p.m.: NFL On Fox
7:30 p.m.: The OT/Bob’s Burgers
8 p.m.: The Simpsons
8:30 p.m.: Brooklyn Nine-Nine
9 p.m.: Family Guy
9:30 p.m.: MULANEY

This is the move that’s prompted the most discussion and consternation, mostly because it looks an awful lot like Fox trying to get rid of Bobs Burgers (which it had better not do) and also because people have a lot emotionally invested in the “Animation Domination” brand name? We guess? But step back a bit, and this is another risky move with the potential to pay off big. Brooklyn Nine-Nine didn’t really have a natural fit on Tuesdays, with its heavy male skew, so finding a spot for it on Sundays—traditionally watched by a much more male audience—could prove a masterstroke. That timeslot also gave rise to That 70s Show, back when it ran between Simpsons and X-Files, and it will ideally remain potent. We’re less certain of putting Mulaney at 9:30, right in the middle of prestige drama crossfire, on a night when multi-camera sitcoms have struggled since, oh, the inception of television. But it’s the only new comedy Fox is putting on in the fall, and if it’s as good as Reilly’s early confidence in it (bumping the order from six episodes to 16) suggests, then it should find an audience for itself regardless. Plus, Family Guy is technically Fox’s best comedy lead-in out there, and if the Brooklyn move works, then Mulaney will have a solid 90 minutes of comedy ratings to prop it up. It could work!

But, then, that’s the way everything on this schedule feels: It makes sense, once you realize what Fox is doing, but if even one piece of it is out of whack, then the whole thing could crumble. Outside of Mondays, none of these nights are really safe. Every so often, a network will manage to ride that kind of momentum to a monster fall (as ABC did in 2004 with a schedule that seemed similarly problematic). But more often than not, this kind of schedule results in a whole lot of problem zones. Fortunately, with its year-round scheduling, Fox is in good shape to fill those holes as quickly as possible. But it could be in the wasteland for a few years. Fox being the new NBC is going to be so depressing.

Stick around here for more news from the upfronts. And come back in the morning for thoughts on Fox’s trailers from Sonia Saraiya and myself!

Tomorrow: ABC wonders if it haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas to do an upfront this year, then sulkily does so anyway.

More Newswire