NEW YORK — For a good chunk of Monday afternoon at an uptown theater here, a raft of Fox sports broadcast personalities held forth from a stage.
Alex Rodriguez talked about the villainy of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Michael Strahan and Eli Manning ribbed Terry Bradshaw about the latter’s potential purchase of a (stuffed) eagle. Joe Buck passed around a cellphone photo of his newborn twins.
The occasion was the Fox upfront, where the network made the case to advertisers for all of its 2018-2019 television programming. But sports occupied an unusually large portion of the event, offering a glimpse at how the Fox TV network might look in the very near future, after Disney acquires a key content pipeline.
As Fox prepares to lose its in-house television studio to Disney in the pending acquisition, sports, it is becoming clear, is where it will place its bets. Scripted series? Not so much. In the coming months, the network has World Series rights, World Cup rights, college football rights and, as it emphasized early and often, rights to 11 Thursday Night Football games, for which it is paying more than $550 million a year in a five-year deal earlier this year.
Fox is “the No. 1 Network in live sports, and, as we all know, live sports is king,” said Fox ad sales chief Joe Marchese, alluding to sports’ resistance to time-shifting, the ad industry’s scourge.
Sports tend to be surer ratings bets, and those broadcasts cost, minute-for-minute, less to produce than scripted series (those pesky rights fees aside). And Fox owns some of the major events in the United States (that pesky NBA aside).
But can a network survive by being this lean and mean — by eschewing, in the peak TV era, much of what got us to this summit?
The NFL remains a safety net for nervous broadcasters; pro football games made up the majority of top 10 broadcasts this past season. “It’s the most powerful content in all of media,” Buck said.
Controversies over anthem kneeling and concussions were among the scandals football has faced of late, and overall NFL ratings were down 9.7 percent last year. Some analysts fear a further drop in the years ahead.
There were, to be sure, some scripted shows on Fox — a new vampire series titled “The Passage” and the return of the science fiction comedy “The Orville.” Comedies had their place, albeit of the more traditional style known as multicam (think in-studio setting and laugh track). In contrast to the critical favorites of the past few years, such as the recently dropped “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Fox now looks to attract more audience than acclaim (a goal that was targeted before the acquisition but that nicely fits the ambitions of a post-Disney network thirsty for viewers).
Among those sitcoms trotted out Monday were a divorced-dad sitcom from Lil Rel Howery, who played the TSA-agent pal in the film “Get Out;” a new start for Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing,” revived from ABC; and “The Cool Kids,” which FOX TV co-chief Gary Newman described as ” ‘The Golden Girls’ reimagined by Charlie Day,” alluding to the manic comedian from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
There were also several nonscripted events, like returning reality show “The Four,” another chapter in the “Cosmos” event series and a live performance of the musical “Rent.” But largely the presentation was about the gridiron and baseball diamond.
After the acquisition closes, Fox could buy a studio or start one of its own; much will depend on what is available and whether the Murdochs want to be in the entertainment business.
On Monday, the company kept Disney out of it. The network could not resist some shots at the digital change that fueled the merger. A taped segment featuring Homer Simpson described a future in which Crackle and Apple “partner for a new network called Crapple.”
The digital specter hovered silently over the proceedings in other ways. When the prolific TV producer Ryan Murphy came out to promote the sophomore season of his medic drama “9-1-1,” he made no mention of the fact that he had recently moved his producing deal from Fox to Netflix, a fact well known to and much discussed by everyone in the room.
In pitching her network, Newman’s co-chief executive, Dana Walden, described a bold future.
“Welcome to New Fox,” she said, using the name for the post-Disney company. “This is an opportunity to chart a new course for broadcast television.” Where that course leads remains in question, but for now it is as much to a field as to a soundstage.