Fox's Original Idea: No More Reruns
In the face of mounting cable competition and rising DVR usage, Fox believes that running repeats to fill the long summer months and to stretch 22 episodes across a 35-week TV season just won't cut it anymore.
So, the network that lost its No. 1 ranking this season is promising affiliates more original programming, some in the form of 13-15 episode "event series," each with its own complete story arc.
Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly has been pitching the strategy, which borrows heavily from cable, to Fox affiliates and he is expected to share more details with the rest of the media world at the network's upfront presentation in New York on May 13.
“Kevin wants to move us more firmly into year-round programming,” says Shana C. Waterman, Fox’s SVP of event series. “This isn’t only about the summer, but that’s our first target."
Right now, Fox has at least five event series in development with the expectation that the first of them will appear in the summer of 2014.
They include Wayward Pines, a thriller from Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan; Shogun, a remake of the 1980 miniseries based on the James Clavell novel; The People v. O.J. Simpson, based on the Jeffrey Toobin book, with The Hunger Games’ Nina Jacobson executive producing; and Blood Brothers, about a group of friends at West Point torn apart by the Civil War.
The series are not necessarily dramas. Also in the hopper is Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Derived from Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the 13-part PBS series that aired in the 1980s and made Carl Sagan famous, the updated version will be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, another astrophysicist and popularizer of science, and produced by Seth MacFarlane.
“We’re calling these 'events series' because we want them to be big, loud and high impact,” Waterman says. “Along with that comes looking for talent who, because of time commitments, aren’t available for longer projects. This gives them an opportunity to dive into television.”
Affiliates like the idea of more original programming and fewer repeats.
“What Fox is planning represents a huge investment in primetime programming,” says Jeff Rosser, VP of television at Raycom Media, which owns seven Fox affiliates, including WXIX Cincinnati and WBRC Birmingham, Ala.
“Repeats used to be successful when there was far less competition,” says Rosser, who is also a member of the Fox affiliate board. “Now, the repeat cycle isn’t successful for networks or affiliates. Fox is adjusting to that.
“These plans are so big and require so much planning that they were in the planning stage well before the first episode of The Bible debuted. The Bible and other programming like it have reconfirmed that viewers look for big event programming.”
Mark Burnett’s The Bible, a 10-episode series that aired on History over four weeks in March, finished with an average audience of 11.4 million people. Last year’s Hatfields & McCoys with Kevin Costner, also on History, attracted 14.3 million viewers for its finale.
“There is a growing appetite for something other than the police drama, the legal drama or the medical drama,” says Simon Applebaum, producer of the online radio show Tomorrow Will Be Televised. “The genre is moving to other things like Showtime’s Homeland, [AMC’s] Breaking Bad, [Sundance Channel’s] Rectify or Syfy’s Defiance. That’s also true of The Following, which has done well so far for Fox.”
Shari Anne Brill, principal analyst at consulting firm Shari Anne Brill Media, says viewers get excited when shows are promoted as short-run events.
“Cable is really good at creating events and promoting them as such," she says. "When 24 was on Fox, it was promoted like a big event.”
Adds Brad Adgate, SVP of research at media buyer Horizon Media: “An event series lends itself to a lot of comments on social media and to binge viewing if you want to stream it."
But not everyone is convinced that event series is the way to go.
“My hunch is that this isn’t where their success is going to come from,” says Eric Deggans, TV critic at the Tampa Bay Times. “Kevin Reilly and his team are very smart, so I am sure they have their reasons for doing this. I’m just not personally energized by this idea. At different times, different networks try to introduce things that worked at a different time. In my cynical view, the networks don’t have any new ideas, so they’re going back to what worked before. They need to present something that is new considering all the increased competition they face.
“One reason we keep hearing for why network shows can’t be as good as cable shows is because they have to produce more episodes. So, if you limit the number of episodes, I guess that makes sense. But, frankly, I don’t see why they can’t do that with the series they have. Make fewer of them and make them better.”