FOX president Kevin Reilly began his press tour executive session with an Oprah Winfrey-length filibuster. Given the season his network had – with the collapse of “American Idol” ratings ending the network’s long streak as the highest-rated network on TV – the move wasn’t a surprise. Lengthy monologues are one way for TV executives to distract us from the recent bad news at their network (or, at least, to suck away all our will to live or ask tough questions). But Reilly’s speech had less to do with trying to change the narrative about Fox than trying to change the narrative about the broadcast network business in general.
“Clearly, I don’t think the broadcast system is broken or antiquated or run by inept people,” Reilly said, while discussing the many ways in which TV viewing has changed from the traditional model.
To try to illustrate his point, he showed the “Portlandia” sketch where friends at a dinner party wind up spoiling each other on cable series they’re not all caught up on (this also, in fairness, ate up about 3 minutes of the pre-Q&A period). He lamented the way the entertainment media covers TV ratings by focusing on overnight viewership and giving short shrift (if not outright ignoring) DVRs, On Demand, streaming and other options, then busted out a series of pie charts showing how much of the total audience for “New Girl” and “Family Guy” come from non-traditional viewing.
And both the TV media and the TV networks at times follow, as Reilly put it, “certain practices that were born in a different era.” But as one reporter noted, all viewers are not created equal in 2013. Even if the cumulative ratings for “The Mindy Project” or “New Girl” across all platforms are much more impressive than just the live TV numbers, advertisers pay vastly more for those live viewers than for the ones watching in any other way.
“We monetize all platforms at this point,” Reilly insisted, while acknowledging that they don’t make as much money on the alternatives as he would like. “We have had to build entirely new business models and catch up with a marketplace that’s moving very fast.”
He noted that cable featured 1050 original series last year, and only four of them would have made the Nielsen top 50 for the year. (Though he commended AMC’s “The Walking Dead” by breaking ground as the first basic cable series to be the season’s highest-rated.) But those cable shows also air many more times for their channels, and those channels make money from both advertising and from cable subscriber fees, whereas network TV only makes money on advertising.
Reilly joined in this press tour’s chorus of executives knocking Netflix for not making its viewership data publicly available – noting that some TV shows speak to a large audience, and some to a small audience, he said there are “some services like Netflix speaking loudly to an unreported mystery audience” – but later admitted to jealousy of the service, and complimented the recent Netflix originals.
“That is my dream definition of television,” he said of Netflix’s business model to this point, “that I get to make television without having to look at or worry about ratings anymore.”
For now, Reilly has to work with the reality of running a broadcast network, and try to find ways to revamp a very old business model for a rapidly-changing new world. He reiterated his comments from the upfronts about giving up on the idea of the traditional 35-week network season, and on debuting shows only in fall and at mid-season, but rather introducing them year-round. The “24” miniseries and the new drama “Gang Related,” for instance, won’t debut until May, when most other network series are winding down, and the network will launch a new Friday lineup – though even Reilly admitted it wouldn’t necessarily consist of “Bones,” “Raising Hope” and “Enlisted,” depending on what happens in the fall – in November, after the baseball playoffs end.
He talked of pitching a three-year plan to News Corp bosses Rupert Murdoch and Chase Carey that “was embraced as the most aggressive plan in our history.” Network TV is generally not a business with a lot of patience, but if Reilly is able to see this plan through to the end, we may be talking about how he reinvented the way the broadcast business works. Or we may just be talking some more about how “Idol” kept FOX’s ratings artificially inflated for most of the last decade.