Upfronts 2014: FOX bets on year-round programming to counter ‘Idol’ struggles

Senior Television Writer
05.12.14 28 Comments


For a decade or so, the schedules FOX announced during upfront week followed a predictable, amusing pattern: one schedule for the fall that would inevitably struggle, another schedule for mid-season built around the dominant presence of “American Idol,” and then many, many changes made to that second schedule at a later date due to the struggles of the first.

But “Idol” has slipped from being a juggernaut, to being a hit that no longer annihilated everything in its path, to being a solid utility player at best this spring – FOX president Kevin Reilly admitted to reporters on a press conference call that their “Idol” strategy is “not about turning it around,” but simply making it a useful piece for the future – and as a result, FOX is finishing up one of its most problematic seasons ever, and didn't even bother announcing a mid-season schedule because they're still tinkering with how frequently “Idol” will air in 2015. (Reilly guessed they would air 37 hours, down from 50-plus of late, and that it would probably only air once a week after the auditions.)

“If you don't have a show in the second half of the season that can lift all ships like 'Idol' did,” Reilly acknowledged, then you run into these kinds of problems. And so FOX is turning elsewhere for solutions: betting even more heavily on airing original shows year-round, experimenting with different formats and episode orders, and trying to latch onto brand names where available.

So the fall schedule includes “Gracepoint,” a mystery miniseries based on the acclaimed British drama “Broadchurch,” and even starring David Tennant in the same role he played in the original, but with a different conclusion so that viewers who saw the original on BBC America (or heard about it) will still be able to tune in without feeling spoiled. And it includes both the return of “Sleepy Hollow” (which will have 18 episodes to play with rather than 13, and will be able to air most of them consecutively this time) and the new “Gotham,” a Batman prequel series featuring Bruce Wayne as a kid, Jim Gordon as a rookie police detective, and familiar villains like Catwoman and the Penguin in their younger incarnations. ABC had some struggles with its own hero-adjacent show “Marvel's Agents of SHIELD,” but Reilly noted that his will have the actual characters fans know from the comic books and films, even if they're years away from the versions we know.

FOX will have another miniseries to go later in the season in M. Night Shyamalan's “Wayward Pines” (announced a year ago, but being held for the right timeslot and premiere window), plus a half dozen new dramas and sitcoms that currently don't have timeslots. The idea is to use the successful return of “24,” plus this month's launch of the action drama “Gang Related,” to condition viewers to the idea that FOX is keeping the lights on over the summer, and then roll out even more original programming after the traditional TV season ends next summer.

“June is just as important as January,” Reilly said.

FOX COO Joe Earley said the cost of marketing all these new shows, particularly in summer, will cost a lot more in the beginning stages, but will in theory pay off if those shows catch on and viewers don't have to be continually reminded to keep watching in the warmer months.

We'll see how this all plays out, and whether the downward spiral of “Idol” (which Reilly hoped can stick around for years in a lesser capacity, the way “Survivor” still has value for CBS long after its phenomenon days) has just done too much damage to be overcome by a network that relied on it so heavily for so long.

In the meantime, some thoughts on the fall schedule, night-by-night:

SUNDAY: FOX is breaking up the idea of Sunday as an animation-only night by moving “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to 8:30 after “The Simpsons,” and scheduling the new live-action sitcom “Mulaney” (created by and starring former “SNL” writer John Mulaney) at 9:30 after “Family Guy.” As Reilly noted to reporters, FOX's three biggest live-action comedy hits of all time – “Married… with Children,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “That '70s Show” – all aired on Sundays alongside “The Simpsons” at least for a time. On the other hand, over non-cartoon comedies like “Arrested Development” and “The War at Home” haven't done so well there.

(I've also heard some “Brooklyn” fans expressing concern about football overruns pushing the show back, but it tends to happen much less frequently on FOX – which has its elastic postgame show “The O.T.” in the 7 o'clock hour rather than something like “60 Minutes” – than it does to “The Good Wife” and CBS' other Sunday shows.)

MONDAY: I have concerns about “Gotham” trying to retrofit characters like Two-Face and the Joker into a pre-Batman city, and about the show winding up handcuffed in the same way “Smallville” was by continuity and a need to keep the hero out of his classic costume until the very end. But expect it to get a lot of FOX's marketing attention in the fall, leading into “Sleepy Hollow” at 9. And we'll see if the things that made that show so much fun at 13 episodes remain true at 18.

TUESDAY: One-time comedy hit “New Girl” cratered this season, but it and “The Mindy Project” are back in the 9 o'clock hour, albeit with Reilly abandoning the futile strategy of a four-comedy night. Instead, 8 goes to “Utopia,” a new reality show where contestants are deposited in a remote location and asked to create a new society – and avoid being voted out in favor of viewers who are theoretically eager to take their place. If nothing else, it's at least not another singing competition show, which TV now has too many of (and which led to the downfall of “Idol”).

WEDNESDAY: Gordon Ramsay gets to ply his anger on a new night, with “Hell's Kitchen” at 8. That leads into “Red Band Society,” a new teen drama about friends who first meet as patients at a hospital's pediatric ward. (Reilly compared it – as all FOX execs must when announcing new dramas with younger leads – to “Beverly Hills 90210” and “The O.C.”)

THURSDAY: The indestructible “Bones” has been sent to this night before and done okay, and it'll have to do it this time even with CBS airing 8 Thursday night NFL games in the fall. It leads into “Gracepoint,” which also features Anna Gunn as Tennant's police partner and Nick Nolte, Michael Pena, Jacki Weaver and Josh Hamilton as some of the residents of the small town affected by the murder they investigate. Great cast, if nothing else, remaking the excellent “Broadchurch” – even with a new ending – still seems redundant.

FRIDAY: More Ramsay, as “Masterchef Junior” returns at 8, followed by a second night of “Utopia,” at least for a little while, as Reilly tries to get more viewers interested in the show.

SATURDAY: College football in primetime, like usual.

Among the new shows waiting on the bench: “Wayward Pines,” “Backstrom” (comic police procedural from “Bones” creator Hart Hanson, starring Rainn Wilson), “Empire” (hip-hop industry drama from Lee Daniels, starring Terence Howard and Taraji P. Henson), “HIEROGLYPH!” (weird epic set in ancient Egypt), “Bordertown” (a new animated comedy from the Seth MacFarlane factory), “The Last Man on Earth” (created by and starring Will Forte) and “Weird Loners” (four 30-something singles sharing a Queens townhouse). And “Idol,” “The Following” and “Glee” (entering its final season) will also be back at some point in 2015.

What does everybody else think? Do any of the shows seem interesting? Or are you too angry that FOX canceled any or all of “Enlisted,” “Surviving Jack” and “Almost Human” to sample new product?

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