Depending on who you talk to at this year’s Television Critics Association summer press tour, Fox is either heading into the fall with the networks’ strongest slate of new programming—or one of the weakest. Brooklyn Nine-Nine gets a lot of praise, but Enlisted, Sleepy Hollow, and Almost Human are the subjects of some scattered impressions.
But then there’s Dads, the great uniter at this press tour—in that it unites critics in an unshakeable dread, and a desire to ask certain, probing questions about the first multi-camera, live-action sitcom from the Seth MacFarlane factory. Questions like “Why?,” as well as the deeper lines of inquiry pitched at Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly during his Thursday-morning executive session with the TCA. Fitting for a day when the Dads panel is placed at the end of a long, punch-drunk slog, it took some time for Reilly to wrangle with questions about a pilot in which Giovanni Ribisi and Seth Green force Brenda Song to pose as a giggly Asian school girl to seal a business deal.
It also took some time to arrive at that point in the session because Reilly had to talk about how Glee will handle the death of Cory Monteith—and even that came after the Fox boss laid out his network’s plan for reinventing the network-TV wheel.
Armed, like NBC’s Bob Greenblatt, with in-house statistics and PowerPoint slides, Reilly nonetheless provided this press tour with its biggest-picture look at shifting viewing habits. (Biggest-picture so far, at least—the way this tour is going, PBS may have prepared similarly sweeping statements to be delivered by Cookie Monster next week.) “Clearly I don’t think the broadcast system is broken or antiquated or run by inept people,” he said, conveniently recusing himself from being numbered among the broken, the antiquated, and the inept. Such deflection was atypical of the state of the union portion of the Fox executive session, however: Reilly admitted—to a refreshing extent—that network scheduling models and methods of gauging audience size are “bound by certain practices born in a different era.”
As viewers have liberated themselves from the constraints of scheduled programming, so is that schedule liberating itself from pre-established beginnings and endings and notions of what types of shows are aired during certain parts of the year. Reilly expressed his desire to abolish “midseason” from the TV vocabulary—a bit silly, considering the succinctness of the term outweighs the “mid-winter dumping ground” connotations its shaken off in recent years. Of course, if Reilly had his druthers, the TV calendar would just be a standard calendar, lacking a “midseason” period because a “season” lasts a full 365 days. The rollout for Fox programming in 2013 and ’14 keeps its feet planted in tradition—its biggest new shows, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Dads, and Sleepy Hollow will all launch alongside returning programming in September and October—but it’s also defined by precedents set this decade and last. If it could launch American Idol (which will at least have Keith Urban at the judge’s table when it returns in the winter, according to Reilly) in the summer of 2002 and The Following in the winter of 2013, what’s to stop Fox from using those times of years (as well as the spring) to keep the streams of content ever-flowing?
Well, a high-profile flameout by the early fall shows, for one. As Fox prepares to fling itself into the great TV unknown, it has an insurance policy in post-World Series Fridays, which (as scheduled) will see the debut of Enlisted and the return of Bones and Raising Hope. That’s a full night of shows ready to be pulled off the bench the moment, say, Dads curdles in the stomachs of the viewing public. Doing so would send Reilly and his team back to the drawing board—the “no repeats” dreamworld envisioned by the year-long schedule would likely be the first concept chucked in that scenario.
Barring any out-of-the-gates faceplants, what Reilly presented to critics was a thrilling reversal of the way television has been programmed since Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz accidentally invented the rerun. More fresh content, more of the time, with the forthcoming 24 reboot (now with more Mary Lynn Rajskub) looking to be the high-profile test case in the summer of ’14. The confidence with which Reilly spoke of the plan suggested it’s been in the works for quite some time—you could even look at the patience the network showed to The Mob Doctor and Ben And Kate last season as a dry run for keeping the reserves of new shows full. It’s an expensive gamble for the network, but one that could pay off huge dividends in the event a wide audience accustomed to summers full of cheap knockoffs ends up flocking to 24: Live Another Day and its scheduled companion, M. Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines.
Building a 12-month season was the sexier angle of Reilly’s proposed reinvention; the math to go with that flash came in the form of the expanded ratings numbers that the Fox boss promises to regularly share with reporters. (All the better to dispel the notion that no one watches network TV anymore.) By internal numbers, there are as many as 16 million people watching the average episode of The Following, it’s just that a significant chunk of those viewers are coming to the show by VOD, Hulu, and Fox’s own website. That’s not news, but a network compiling and sharing those numbers certainly is—especially in light of Netflix’s continued refusal to share its own viewership numbers. Reilly referred to the streaming service’s “unreported mystery audience,” a particularly pointed jest considering that some of that “mystery” pertains to a show, Arrested Development, that Fox could never call a “hit” because Fox actually had to say how many people were watching Arrested Development.
But if the network follows through on Reilly’s plans in the weeks to come, these amended ratings should be taken with a grain of salt. They’ll boost Fox shows to Big Bang Theory/NCIS levels, sure, but what kind of boost would those shows receive if CBS was releasing similar stats? There’s also the matter of monetizing those stats, which is the topic of a discussion that can’t fit into the time allotted for a press-tour exec session.
The impact of Fox’s plan (if it manages to have any) is the type that won’t be felt for a long time—requiring a patience that’s largely been beaten out of the American broadcast system. Faced with questions about Dads, Reilly advocated for another kind of patience, asking TCA members to give the show a chance, beyond the racist jokes and sexist sight gags of the pilot’s original cut. After all, it’s only a pilot, and some of the most upsettingly unfunny aspects of the episode might not make it to air. (There’s always the chance that they’ll grow more rancid by the première, too.) As much as execs like Reilly don’t have the money to throw at programming that’s clearly not working, TV is a wait-and-see game. This time around, however, Fox will be waiting and seeing if this plan can keep the broadcast-network model afloat for a few more years.