Fox at the TCA press tour: Niche comedy is the future, until it’s probably the past

Fox at the TCA press tour: Niche comedy is the future, until it’s probably the past

Peter Rice, president of Fox Networks Group
Peter Rice, president of Fox Networks Group

During a Saturday network research panel featuring ratings gurus—that’s a technical term—from Fox, Showtime, FX, and CBS, Fox’s Will Somers discussed the “long tail” of a range of different genres across the broadcast networks. His data revealed that relative to other broadcast networks, Fox comedies—led by New Girl—have a larger percentage boost from DVR, VOD, and other streaming platforms than their comedy competitors. Implicit in this data point is that Fox comedies need this boost given how low their same-day ratings have been in recent years. More than any other genre on any other network, Fox’s comedies live and die by the network’s willingness to overlook low initial ratings in favor of “social buzz,” “cultural impact,” and new measurements that focus on those who no longer watch television live, or on televisions.

And yet as Peter Rice—Chairman and CEO of the broader Fox Networks Group, and one level above the executives who typically hold court for critics—took to the stage for his executive session, the room was concerned that these comedies may be on their way out. Rice recently hired 20th Century Fox TV heads Dana Walden and Gary Newman to run a combined Fox Television Group, in which they will oversee both the production studio and the network’s programming slate. While at 20th, Walden and Newman developed broad spectrum comedies for other networks—including Modern Family at ABC and How I Met Your Mother at CBS—at the same time as former Fox president Kevin Reilly was building his stable of niche comedies. With Walden and Newman now in charge of developing shows at the studio and rebuilding Fox’s fortunes as a network, it’s only logical to assume Rice might be angling for a different type of development moving forward, particularly given that both The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine come to the network via a competing network’s studio in NBC Universal.

Rice isn’t willing to admit this, however. Asked about whether Walden and Newman’s entrance could signal a shift toward a broader comedy brand, Rice protested the term “niche” and emphasized the ratings data that demonstrates the long tail of shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine to say that they’re not really making niche shows if we’re paying attention to the right data. Pushed in the post-panel scrum about whether the integration with the studio has the potential to put the NBC Universal productions “hanging by a thread” at a disadvantage, Rice protested the suggestion the shows are hanging by a thread, once again turning to questions of measurement to suggest they have a strong chance of remaining part of the network. When pushed specifically about whether The Mindy Project is entering a “make or break” third season, Rice suggested he loved the show and gave no indication it was in any danger despite precipitously low ratings.

It’s a purposefully benevolent presentation from Rice, both because he’s not the one who’s going to be overseeing the network day-to-day and because he’s not going to admit the level to which Fox is undergoing a transition phase. For years, the network remained number one in the demo without a major comedy hit outside of their animation block because of American Idol’s reality dominance, but with Idol falling they’ve lost their demographic crown, and the rest of the lineup needs to be recalibrated to make up for it. This means abandoning the Fox animation block to try to use those audiences to help build live-action comedies, and it means investing in Gotham as a franchise (and trying to avoid the fate of Marvel’s Agents of Shield on ABC, which wilted into a mild demographic success instead of a television equivalent to the franchise’s blockbuster tentpoles). And it also meant—if reports about Rice’s decision to push Kevin Reilly out of the picture are true—canceling Enlisted and Almost Human despite creative potential and audience support, and stepping in to axe midseason big swing Hieroglyph before it could air. Fox is making major moves that certainly signal a significant shift in its identity; all it’s not doing is coming out and announcing it, as Kevin Reilly did in January when he suggested he intended on killing pilot season.

Rice, as an executive of a higher rank than usually presents to critics, was suitably candid about certain details, admitting that Hieroglyph failed to live up to its ambition and that weak talent pools have kept American Idol from connecting with audiences in the past few seasons. But by and large, as a man running a much wider business of which Fox the broadcast network is only one piece in a much larger puzzle, Rice didn’t acknowledge any kind of crisis. Indeed, the networks’ larger plea for critics to pay more attention to long tail ratings is a conscious effort to delay a failure narrative, suggesting the data we have access to is not telling the whole story. It seems plausible that the narrative of the low-rated sitcoms “hanging by a thread” will end up being the whole story, but discussion of measurement and “cultural impact” delays that certainty long enough for Fox to present stability where transition is more likely. Of course, it’s also plausible that Rice is being entirely honest about his belief in alternative measurement, and The Mindy Project will run for seven seasons of low-rated workplace rom-com shenanigans, but one imagines that such alternative measurements will not advance fast enough for Danny and Mindy to be on-again-off-again for the fifth time in 2018.

Fox’s presence at the press tour carefully cultivates plausible deniability regarding the network’s transition period. As far as Rice is concerned, the network is perfectly stable, and has complete faith in the value of returning series like Glee—even though they cut the order from 22 to 13 episodes for the final season after precipitous ratings drops in the past two years—and new series like Red Band Society in equal measure. But if Gotham becomes a big hit—as the swarm of journalists onstage after the panel would indicate is possible—Fox is going to change its tune, celebrating its transition into a network of big dramatic swings and genre flair as paired with Sleepy Hollow (which is getting a second season TCA session later today). If Red Band Society connects with audiences, its feel-good stories of cancer kids bonding in an extended-stay hospital ward will be tied into the uplifting stories of American Idol as part of Fox’s new focus on “inspiration.” And if Mulaney were to somewhat magically break out as hit on Sunday nights despite a tortured production history and an uneven pilot, Fox could make a big push for midseason’s Weird Loners and embrace a live action sitcom future.

This “wait-and-see” attitude is standard issue for every network, but it seems particularly true of Fox this season, as they wait and see which of this year’s gambits—largely decided by Kevin Reilly with Rice’s oversight—will be picked up by Walden and Newman moving forward. Without them being here to offer their own insight—they don’t start until the end of the month—and without Rice being willing to show his hand as their boss, we’re left with a Fox lineup that’s trapped in development limbo. For the returning shows decidedly on the bubble, Rice offered a glimmer of hope, built on a web of carefully chosen claims that may or may not be hiding a darker future. The new shows, meanwhile, have the potential to be central to the network’s future, or a byproduct of a transition period destined to be forgotten by history. Although it seems difficult to imagine a Fox without American Idol moving forward, everything else seems like it could be entirely overhauled at any moment, a key moment for Fox and a tough moment for Fox executives whose job it is to hide that reality.

Rice did an admirable job with that task, but the cracks are showing, and will resonate throughout the network’s lineup in the fall season.

Other points of interest:

  • Rice suggests no talks have taken place regarding another season of 24 following its limited series relaunch (which was a creative success but not exactly a ratings juggernaut), but they’re holding a Comic-Con panel for the show, so it’s plausible they’re holding the announcement for there.
  • Rice would love to see another season of So You Think You Can Dance, which has successfully pared down its production into a feasible economic proposition for the summer months, but remains decidedly on the bubble.
  • In addition to a new trailer for the “Simpsons Guy” crossover event, Fox also announced a long list of guest voices and loglines for its animated series. So get excited for the episode of Bob’s Burgers where the family “battles a hoard of ferocious poultry unleashed upon the town by Mr. Fischoeder” and the episode where “Tina romances a ghost, but finds a rival in Tammy.” No word, however, on the Simpsons/Futurama crossover.
  • American Dad will burn off the three remaining episodes of its Fox order on September 14 and September 21, before moving to TBS—the Fox finale includes a guest appearance from Kim Kardashian.
  • Hank Azaria will serve as the lead voice in Seth MacFarlane’s new animated series Bordertown, which does not yet have a premiere date.


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