FOX has been the top-rated network on television for the past 8 television seasons. But as network entertainment president Kevin Reilly faced the press assembled for the Television Critics Association summer press tour, he also acknowledged that this is a network in the midst of a transition – which could, depending on how big a boost top rival CBS gets from airing the Super Bowl next year, the end of that first place streak.
“I can tell you that at the very least, it’s going to be close,” Reilly said of the possibility of finishing second for the first time in almost a decade. “Whether we end up getting nudged out of the title, we’ll see.”
“American Idol” saw its ratings dip last season and could be replacing its entire judging panel, though only Mariah Carey was confirmed today. Having just closed a deal with the ’90s pop diva, Reilly happily put Carey on speaker phone for a few minutes, where she sounded exciting about the deal. (If she’s being paid the rumored $17 million for a season, who wouldn’t be?) And after “Idol” producer Nigel Lythgoe had earlier in the day tried to hang onto a 1 percent chance that Jennifer Lopez might stay, Reilly said, “I think I can say that it’s 100 percent that Jennifer won’t be back on the show.”
Steven Tyler’s already gone, and Randy Jackson’s contract is up, though as Carey’s co-manager, he was “instrumental” in making her deal.
“The X Factor,” meanwhile, was something of a disappointment last fall, yet at the same time gave the network its best fall numbers ever. It’ll return this season with Britney Spears and Demi Lovato added to the judging panel, and Reilly said “without a doubt” the value the network gets from the new show in the fall outweighs whatever damage it’s done to “Idol” by making the veteran show seem like less of an event.
And “Glee,” which was once every bit as much a signature show of FOX as “Idol” itself, saw its ratings dip this past season, and now faces a season where it will have to split its narrative between Ohio and New York, and service the kids still attending Lima, Rachel Berry in New York, and irregular appearances by the other graduates.
“Now that I’ve read the first three scripts, I am very happy with how seamless it is,” Reilly insisted. Though all of last season’s actors will be back in some capacity, “Obviously, we’re not going to be servicing that large a tapestry of characters.”
There was discussion at one point of splitting the season more cleanly in two, with the first half in Ohio and the second in New York, “But ultimately, I don’t think that’s how the fans are going to want to watch the show,” he explained. “It could have been really jarring.”
(“Glee” is also moving to Thursdays at 9, after “X Factor” in the fall and “Idol” in the spring, though Reilly said that was less about protecting “Glee” than a desire to have four half-hour comedies on Tuesday nights.)
Reilly also saw the network business itself in something of a transition, not only dealing with how to make money off of the rising number of DVR viewers, but also how the broadcast networks can compete with cable when it comes to Emmys. For the first time ever, none of the major broadcast networks had a series nominated for the outstanding drama series Emmy, which instead features five cable dramas and PBS’ “Downton Abbey.”
Reilly, who was president of FX when “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” were developed, noted that his current job works differently than his old one.
“I love all those shows that were nominated, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one that would work on a network,” he said. “We are in a different business.” But he argued that Emmys, like many things about the business, are cyclical, and we’ve just seen the end of a lot of network Emmy contenders.
“I think we had a long run of some seminal network shows that cycled out,” he said. “I noticed that that tends to be when the new hits come in. People kind of select things, they put them on their plate, they invest in things. Now it’s our job to repopulate it.
“I don’t like having no shows there,” he added, but said he believes FOX has contenders to make the category next year. When pressed, he hedged and alluded to the network’s two new dramas: “Mob Doctor” and “The Following,” but wouldn’t specifically name one. (Probably because he thinks “The Following” has a shot but didn’t want to insult “Mob Doctor.”) He also cited the Kiefer Sutherland drama “Touch” as a potential Emmy contender down the road, but that would have to beat out “Downton,” all the cable shows, “The Good Wife,” etc.
Reilly had joked at the start of the session that “You’ve got the non-stories at the ready, (and) I will deny it all. Why don’t we just name it Groundhog Day?” But the Mariah Carey news, at least, was real. And how FOX evolves as its hits age and it has to repopulate the network with new ones (or new talent on old ones) is still an open question.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com