Fox at the TCA winter press tour: Kevin Reilly and the case of the cable conundrum

Fox at the TCA winter press tour: Kevin Reilly and the case of the cable conundrum

At last summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, Fox president Kevin Reilly was casually confident about his network winning yet another ratings crown for yet another season. Fox was just coming off its eighth straight year of finishing the season atop the Nielsens in the all-important 18-49-year-old demographic, with American Idol still riding relatively high (though it was down) and the launch of new hits like New Girl bolstering the older hits the network had, like Glee. What’s more, the network had by far the most buzzed about new show of the year in The Mindy Project, and it had a hugely anticipated midseason drama in The Following, which would mark Kevin Bacon’s first project as a TV series regular. At the time, if you were to ask most of the critics in the room which network they’d most want to be heading up, Fox would have been a perfectly justifiable answer.

Half a year later, many of them would probably still say Fox but with substantial reservations. The network finished the fall in last place by most metrics (some have it in third over ABC), and the surge of NBC and The Voice has left the usual casual confidence of Reilly and his network slightly tattered. The network’s Tuesday night comedy bloc bombed, with New Girl proving it could pull good enough ratings to stay on the air but not to prop up an entire evening of television, and then The X Factor ended up getting blown out by The Voice, even though it had spent a lot of money to add Britney Spears, in particular, to the judging panel. That effectively destroyed half of the network’s lineup, and we won’t even get into the way that Glee has slumped in the ratings (while doing much better creatively than it has at any point since season one) and the basic existence of The Mob Doctor (whose title Reilly called the worst title in television history in the post-panel scrum).

TV journalists tend to like Reilly. He’s at once gregarious and blunt, and he has a nice habit of owning his failures. (When one journalist apologized for asking him about something Fox had already made available in a pre-session press release, he said everybody makes mistakes. “Have you seen my fall?”) Yet part of that may be since we’ve never seen Reilly in a place where his failures were this substantial. Now, granted, Fox could very easily end up the first place network again for the season (though it would be tough to do with the Super Bowl airing on CBS). American Idol and The Following still have yet to premiére, and it’s not as though there’s that much distance between first-place NBC and last-place Fox. The two networks could very easily switch places if Idol comes back strong and Voice suffers from over-exposure. TV is so volatile right now, and the pie is getting so small, that being the last-place network doesn’t mean what it did even five years ago.

But Fox is still the last-place network. And that’s a tough thing for the channel to wrap its brain around. Reilly, however, was the guy who was in charge of NBC at the very bottom of its lowest ebb. He’s the man who put Heroes and 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights on the air, and he’s the man who very slowly rebuilt the Thursday night comedy bloc, by putting My Name Is Earl, 30 Rock, The Office, and Scrubs all on the same night. Granted, the network remained mired in last place, and Studio 60 ended up being a costly blunder (though one any network at the time would have made), but Reilly’s very brief tenure at NBC gives some suggestion of how he’d run a last-place network: He’d take chances, and he’d stick with stuff that didn’t seem to be working for far longer than most other networks would. (Look, for instance, at how he’s kept Fringe on the air by finding a timeslot where it won’t lose too much money and letting the series play out its natural storyline.)

This is already playing out with that disastrous Tuesday night comedy bloc. Both Raising Hope and New Girl more or less hit their targets—though Fox surely wishes New Girl had maintained the high ratings it displayed in the first several weeks it was on the air, instead of falling off so significantly. (It’s still Fox’s best-rated show of the night, but it regularly loses its half-hour to NBC’s Go On, something that would have seemed unthinkable a year ago.) New comedies Ben And Kate and The Mindy Project, however, have to cling to the fact that they’re not losing substantial portions of their tiny audiences week-to-week to have any particular silver linings to report. But Reilly is sticking with that lineup. When asked about the network’s one midseason pickup, Goodwin Games, from the How I Met Your Mother creators, Reilly said he was hesitant to mess with the Tuesday night bloc too much, lest he make a bad situation even worse, so the show might get bumped to summer. It still seems likely that at least one of the two new comedies will be canceled and probably both, but Reilly is doing what fans of low-rated shows always wish networks would do—leaving them in one place and hoping audiences will find them.

Reilly also talked a lot about new sorts of broadcast models, including a return to short-form series that would tell one story over 10-13 episodes, then be done. This is already playing out in the M. Night Shyamalan project the network is pressing forward with (as well as Civil War mini Blood Brothers). The hope is that the network can tell more concrete, thoroughly plotted stories, with higher production values than a 22-episode series might have, as well as attract bigger stars to said projects. The Following seems to be the model here. The network is very proud of the show—about which more in a bit—and is particularly proud that it landed the long-pursued Bacon, largely because it promised him 15-episode seasons, so he’d still have time to pursue film options. Serialized drama has been in a position where a return to miniseries would be a welcome thing for quite some time, so it’s exciting to hear Reilly talking this way.

Reilly also talks about the television world as it actually is, not as it was in 1997. Now, granted, the president of the last-place network will always talk about how his audience isn’t being measured by the Nielsens because of alternate viewing platforms (see also: Bob Greenblatt last summer), but Reilly also talked at length about how the fact that The Walking Dead was, by some measures, the most popular drama on television this fall points to how the old reality where cable shows generated lots of discussions but not many viewers has largely evaporated. Reilly and the other network presidents are living in a post-Walking Dead world now, and that means trying higher concepts and doing riskier things. It means finding one big reality hit, one big sitcom hit, then thinking like a cable network everywhere else—riskier, cheaper, and buzzier.

The problem is that Reilly seems to think of cable almost entirely in terms of what cable can get away with that he can’t. He started talking about Walking Dead because he was comparing the graphicness of its content to the graphic violence on The Following. What he misses, though, is that the graphic violence on Walking Dead is almost entirely directed at non-humans and is of a piece with the series’ thematic concerns about living in a post-apocalyptic world and seeing what remains of civilization and the soul after a long enough time spent there. (This doesn’t say the show looks at these themes particularly skillfully, but it does at least attempt to dig into them.) The Following, however, is just a weekly wallow inside of the mind of a serial killer, for no real reason other than shock value. Yes, the violence is dark and disturbing and cable-level (though, honestly, maybe not as bad as what gets shown on Criminal Minds on a weekly basis), but it’s just there to be violent. There’s no particular thematic reason for it. It’s empty nihilism, tossed out with all the solemnity of a plot development on Mad Men but treated with the thematic depth of your average episode of NCIS.

This issue came up again when Reilly talked about how the comedies that get buzz nowadays are “salty,” where Fox’s comedies (at least the live-action ones) tend to be quite sweet. Now, on the one hand, this could be read as essentially a surrender on something like Ben And Kate, a tacit admission that the show will be pushed aside for something that’s just a man farting in another man’s face for 22 minutes every week. But there’s also a kernel of truth there: If Fox wants to do big and buzzy and cable-y, it needs to get a little more brash and a little louder, like the network was back when it started out in the mid-80s. (Reilly also pointed out that it can be very hard to launch comedy because of the three major primetime genres—comedy, drama, and reality—it’s by far the one with the least “gotta see it now” quotient that would drive enough live and three-day viewers to the show to make it profitable. Fans of Ben And Kate are as likely to watch it five episodes at a time, at which point, the network can’t make any money off of them.)

This isn’t to say that great TV can’t result from networks thinking almost entirely in terms of pushing envelopes in content or attitude. But what made the great cable shows great was a particular approach to theme and storytelling. Breaking Bad—a show Reilly cited as one of his favorites—isn’t great because it has occasional bursts of shocking violence or crazy baroque plotting. It’s great because it has a methodical approach to its storytelling that could only result from handing over the reins to Vince Gilligan and trusting his storytelling sense. The current network culture too often involves lots and lots of layers of executives offering their thoughts on every episode of every show; the cable culture succeeds because it often drastically cuts back this process, trusting showrunners to express their visions. Does that get cable in trouble from time to time? Most certainly. But it also allows for the sorts of daring storytelling that causes people to say to their friends at work, “Oh, you’ve gotta see this!” So long as Reilly and his cohorts—who’ve all expressed variations on this idea—all seem to appreciate the style over the substance, we’ll keep getting the emptiness of The Following, instead of the stark beauty of Breaking Bad.

Some other news tidbits from the Reilly session:

  • The network’s Adult Swim competitor, “Animation Domination High-Def,” will launch Saturday, July 27. The shows featured will include an animated version of Axe Cop and a new series from Moral Orel creator and Community consultant Dino Stamatopoulos. Expect more about this in a moment from Erik Adams.
  • Though the show’s ratings have slumped (but not as much as other shows’ ratings have), Reilly is happy with the creative direction Glee has taken in its fourth season, essentially splitting into two shows. Left unsaid was that its massive cast and large amounts of location shooting must be insanely expensive, so some sort of retooling for a presumable season five would likely happen.
  • Seth Rogen is going to guest star on The Mindy Project, as Mindy’s first kiss from when she went to Jewish summer camp. That episode will air Feb. 19, in the heart of sweeps.
  • Also, the network picked up a ninth season of Bones, one of the few shows on its schedule that has mostly kept pace with where it was last year.
  • Reilly seemed uninterested in slagging too much on The X Factor, which has already been picked up for a third season, even though its failure was the biggest reason Fox’s fall was so atrocious. (Had it been bigger, the Tuesday problems would have seemed much smaller; since nobody cares about X Factor, its failure makes the Tuesday problems seem much larger.) He’s also open to Britney Spears returning for another season, so… look forward to that?
  • The level of violence in The Following was a frequent discussion point all morning, particularly in the wake of the Newtown massacre. While few would want to draw a direct line between televised violence and what happened in Connecticut, it’s shocking how poorly both Reilly and the various Following panel members were prepared for questions about pop culture violence’s role in American culture. The most frequent deflection was that The Following is a work of fiction, which, yes, but it’s also a work of fiction about people training to become serial killers (often in step-by-step detail). While I don’t share the concerns other critics do (outside of finding the show pretty bad), it’s still surprising to hear that nobody was prepped for this question. (Reilly, in fact, kept describing the show as a thriller about good guys and bad guys, as if he were playing Cops and Robbers on the playground and at one point told a long, rambling answer that seemed to suggest he’d put it on the air because an older woman from Kansas City told him how much she liked NYPD Blue in 1993. Seriously.)
  • Idol debuts Jan. 16 and 17. If it stays mostly level, Fox is saved. If it goes down as much as it did last year, the network is going to have an interesting few months coming up.

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