Press Tour: Fox execs on ‘Fringe,’ ‘American Idol,’ ‘Terra Nova’ and more

Senior Television Writer
01.11.11 23 Comments


The last few times FOX execs Peter Rice and Kevin Reilly appeared before the press at the Television Critics Association press tour, there was some obvious story dominating the day, usually involving the “American Idol” judging panel.

But the judging panel is now firmed up and at work, and had just appeared right before the FOX executive press conference, and so Rice and Reilly wound up being quizzed on a whole bunch of topics, including the future of “Fringe,” the cost of “Terra Nova,” the failure of “Lone Star” and, of course, their hopes for both “Idol” and the Simon Cowell-starring “X-Factor.”

Some of what they had to say (Fienberg has the full recap in his live-blog), and my thoughts on that, coming up after the jump…

“Fringe” + Fridays = Future?:
Because “American Idol” is now airing on a Wednesday/Thursday pattern rather than Tuesday/Wednesday, something had to move off of Thursdays. That something was “Fringe,” which is having its creatively strongest season so far, but is mainly surviving because it’s one of the most DVR’ed shows on television. (Half its audience doesn’t watch it Thursdays at 9.)

But given that Fridays have been a disaster area at FOX for years, those exact “Fringe” numbers from Thursday would make it a solid success for the network.

“If we just literally transfer the rating we have from Thursday to Friday,” said Reilly, “we have significantly upgraded our rating on that night.”

Of course, the odds of all those fans going from Thursday (a night that’s highly-watched on all the networks) to Friday (one that’s… not) isn’t very strong, given that at least some of the show’s current audience is just spilling over from “Bones.” But one of the advantages to the show’s current heavily-serialized style is that it’s chased away most of the casual viewers.

“As it’s really gotten to be a pure, better, what it’s destined to be (show), it’s become a little difficult to join in progress,” said Reilly. “Now they can say, ‘We’re playing to our fans, but we’re also happy to take anyone else on board. If they can keep (all) those fans, they can stay on for years.”

This seems a case where Friday isn’t the automatic death sentence it usually is for a FOX show (see “The Good Guys,” “Next Great American Band,” “Dollhouse,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”…)

The past is expensive: Earlier in the day, FOX announced that the Steven Spielberg-produced “Terra Nova” – about a family from 2149 who travel back to a colony of humans on prehistoric Earth – will get a sneak preview this spring after episodes of “House” and “Glee,” then return in the fall. And a lot of time in Rice and Reilly’s session was spent discussing the expense of building a world from scratch.

Specifically, they had to order the show straight to series to amortize the costs of creating this prehistoric colony, which would have been prohibitive if they had made a standalone pilot and then not picked it up from there. Rice compared it to the expense of building the town from “Deadwood.” And the launch plan itself is identical to the one FOX used on “Glee” a couple of years ago.

My big concern is that the man in charge of the day-to-day isn’t Spielberg himself (who has a mixed, at best, TV track record anyway), but Brannon Braga, who’s a lightning rod among sci-fi fans for his stewardship of various “Star Trek” spin-offs, and who was a producer on the bumpy final seasons of “24.” You can throw all the money in the world at something, and if the writing’s bad, the production design and effects won’t matter.

Regrets, they have a few: There were so many questions about the disastrous ratings for, and speedy cancellation of, “Lone Star,” that there was audible grumbling over the last one – not from Reilly and Rice, but from some of the critics.

Rice and Reilly said they’d done a lot of internal post-mortem’ing on the subject, and what they concluded was “We made a show that we really loved and we thought the creators were really talented and they made an excellent show. We put that show on, and not enough people showed up to watch it.”

Reilly noted that they gave it one of their best lead-ins in “House,” but that “In the age of DVR’s, that lead-in becomes a diminished asset.”

The good news was that Reilly – who has, during his tenures at FX, NBC and now FOX, consistently developed and greenlit some of the most interesting and formula-breaking shows on television – said he won’t be scared off from trying other shows that might seem like they belong on cable rather than broadcast. 

“You’re only a few DNA strands between a hit and a failure,” he said. “That same DNA of being creatively bold yields a ‘Glee,’ and then the other side of it is we thought we were taking another big, bold bet on ‘Lone Star.'”

I also asked Reilly about the failure – both creatively and in the ratings – of “Running Wilde,” and of creator Mitch Hurwitz’s complaints that FOX executives meddled too much and watered down his vision.

“I watered down his vision,” Reilly cracked, then went on to suggest – correctly, I would say – that the show took quite a while to find itself.

“There was funny stuff,” he said, “but probably too little, too late.”

And then there was J-Lo: Of course, none of the other questions matter nearly as much as how “Idol” rebounds from its disappointing ninth season, how the show functions without Simon, and then next year, whether it can co-exist with “X-Factor.”

The new “Idol” judging panel – along with Ryan Seacrest, new mentor Jimmy Iovine, and a cadre of producers and FOX execs – preceded Rice and Reilly to the stage. Various jokes were cracked, some intentional (Randy Jackson declaring that his new judging style will involve “A little less ‘yo’s, a little more ‘no’s.”), some probably not (Tyler said he wanted to work with J-Lo after seeing her in “The Back-Up Plan”), but not a sense of overwhelming chemistry.

And though the producers are tweaking the format quite a bit – extending the Hollywood round to include a trip to Las Vegas, cutting the semi-finals back to a single week involving 10 men and 10 women –  even they acknowledged that the American public is still going to choose who they want. I asked if they could do anything to break the streak of White Guys With Guitars who have won the last three seasons, and they threw up their hands, and Ken Warwick (who had earlier lamented Adam Lambert’s loss to Kris Allen) said, “The audience votes. There’s nothing we can do.”

My concern with “Idol” and “X-Factor” co-existing is not just that the new judges will still have to operate in Simon’s shadow, but that having two singing shows on per season will take away the event status that’s made “Idol” mostly impervious to audience erosion for the last decade.

Rice, who is British and familiar with both “Pop Idol” and the Brit “X-Factor,” said, “They may appear the same if you explain it to somebody, but if you actually see (‘X-Factor’), you’ll see how different it is.”

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