The Fox television network has been in an unusual position since its television studio was sold to Disney earlier this year. Fox is now the only of the four broadcast networks without an in-house television studio — the production unit that actually makes these shows.
That has led to a vexing question: Will a Fox broadcasting network decoupled from its most important asset look and act like a traditional television platform? Or some newfound hybrid we’ve yet to fully get our non-Murdochian heads around?
The answer: yes.
That was the indication Monday afternoon in New York’s Beacon Theater. That’s where new Fox Entertainment chief Charlie Collier — with Rupert and Fox chief executive Lachlan Murdoch in attendance — presided over the network’s upfront. (The upfront is where a network presents its upcoming programming to Madison Avenue to secure ad buys.)
What’s at stake for viewers in this era when so much programming is available on basic cable, pay cable and a new class of streamers is surprisingly significant.
Some of it is historical. Fox broke ground with its programming when it launched a little more than three decades ago, conjuring edgy stuff not available on the other broadcast networks (or anywhere else) — “Married… with Children,” “21 Jump Street,” “The Tracey Ullman Show” and “In Living Color.” The idea that it’s unwinding that is notable in its own right.
But it’s also practical. Rich scripted programming that can be both popular and, well, good is in short supply in this Peak TV era, when so much quality stuff has fragmented to more upscale services and niches. The networks don’t gamble as much as they used to, not nearly: NBC, which had its upfront earlier Monday, said it would air just three new series in the fall, with five more as midseason replacements. (Not that long ago this collective number was well over a dozen.) Fox getting out of the game would be more blow to a bruised apple.
So will Fox continue as the network we know so well? It could. But that doesn’t mean it always will — or there isn’t a larger game afoot.
Here is the case for both sides.
Fox is completely a scripted network, now with more nimbleness than before
Fox executives said plenty of persuasive things Monday. Collier extolled Ryan Murphy, the prolific producer who’s behind its dramatic procedural “9-1-1” and announced a Texas-based spin-off, “9-1-1: LONE STAR.” It was not the only big Southern bet: The network also announced the prime time soap “Filthy Rich,” from “The Help” director and starring Kim Cattrall.
And there was a palpable buzz in the room around a scripted series, “neXT,” a show with an AI-centric premise starring John Slattery.
This was as rich a group of programs as any of its competitors. Fox actually has as many new scripted series in the fall as NBC, and a couple more than that network does for midseason (three and seven, is the combined total).
If anything, the lack of a studio could bring new energy, since the network would not be bound to buy an in-house studio’s programming.
As Collier said, "What would you do if you had a chance to start all over again? We’ve been given the ultra-rare opportunity to recreate an entertainment company from the ground up.” He called the network a “start-up.”
Fox is becoming something different from a traditional network. And we’ll soon see how different.
Okay, so Fox may have enough scripted shows — for now. The “for now” is key. Without an in-house studio, it simply can’t keep that pace going — there just aren’t that many quality projects out there.
And sure, a network like Fox is free to buy from anyone. But what’s really available when studios feel intense business pressure to keep their best stuff in-house? It’s hard enough finding a hit with access to the best of a studio. Fighting for scraps plunges the odds further.
That shortfall applies to creators, too. Murphy, among the network’s biggest names, has signed a major deal with Netflix. So don’t expect that pipeline to flow consistently.
Really it’s only a matter of time before the network becomes a venue primarily for live sports and nonscripted programming — the latter of which is cheaper and the former it has in abundance. On Monday, executives spent a lot of time touting both, including a recent deal for WWE and the sophomore season of its Thursday Night Football package. It has the World Series for the next 10 years.
In fact, actual entertainment hours are going down. Networks have typically programmed six nights of entertainment (scripted or nonscripted) programming — Sunday-Friday. But Fox in the fall will broadcast only four days, with Thursday given over to football and Friday to the WWE. (And one of those four days is the night of “The Masked Singer,” its reality sensation.) So Fox has some scripted stuff. But it’s not what matters. And it will matter less as the years go on.
Even if the latter case is true, of course, it doesn’t mean Murdoch is getting out of the television. Far from it. It’s entirely possible Murdoch is once again ahead of the curve. This is an age when ratings continue to drop. And it’s an age when scripted programming is so expensive — “Game of Thrones” now costs $10 million to $15 million per episode; string a few together and you have a midbudget film. The ad-based broadcast networks are buying in at their own peril.
The trend is moving the other way for other kinds of programming. Sports rights packages have been expensive, but there are strong signals they’re going down. And younger generations watch unscripted like it’s high-end drama. Both categories make more sense, from financial and audience perspectives, than trying to hit a bull’s eye with the next “24.”
Thirty years ago Murdoch flourished by going to the kind of scripted programming the herd avoided. In 2019, he may be equally iconoclastic in moving away from it.