It doesn’t seem like so long ago that the Fox network was considered something of an afterthought in the world of broadcast television. Certainly as long ago as the 20th century, when The Simpsons, America’s Most Wanted, and the NFL helped to lift the network into mainstream success and the beginnings of a genuine rivalry with the Big Three.
Through the first two decades of the network’s evolution — after Rupert Murdoch first got it up and running in 1985 — it was still something of an also-ran, even as it made those small gains, eventually expanding to seven nights of programming each week. As the 20th century became the 21st, there was a move toward reality programming, with titles like Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, Temptation Island, Married by America, and Joe Millionaire. Eventually, those shows were shed and more scripted shows began to fill the schedule — shows like 24, The O.C., House, Bones, The Bernie Mac Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and Arrested Development, which brought in millions of viewers and a host of Emmys, lending an additional level of prestige to the network and plenty of numbers to the bottom line.
But if we’re going to point to one, specific thing that really made the difference, that would have to be the night of June 11th, 2002, when American idol premiered. An instant sensation, it lasted 15 seasons, just airing its final episode this past April, was the most watched show on television for eight consecutive seasons starting in 2003-4, and averaging as many as 37.4 million viewers per week during its Season Six peak. It was during the fourth season of the smash hit that the network took its first ever title as the most-watched broadcast network in the key 18-49 demographic, a title it would go on to win for four consecutive years. In 2008, it also took its first crown as the highest-rated network, the only time in the last 14 years that CBS did not.
Viewership declined slowly but steadily for several years until 2012-13, when the bottom dropped out and, for the first time in over a decade, Fox fell behind NBC and ABC to place fourth in the overall standings. It was around then that Kevin Reilly resigned as the chairman of Fox Entertainment, leading 21st Century Fox to merge the operations of the network and 20th Century Fox Television into the newly created Fox Television Group, with 20th Century Fox Television co-chairs Dana Walden and Gary Newman appointed to head the division. Under that duo’s leadership, the network rose back up to second behind CBS the next year, before getting crushed the year after, dropping back to fourth, its ratings dropping 24 percent in the process.
If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last several weeks of looking at the broadcast networks, it’s that live viewership on the whole has fallen off, thanks to DVR, cable, and streaming, which means that, from year to year, a majority of shows shed more than they gain. There are extremes to that, of course, as we discussed last week with ABC, but generally speaking, if a network can keep that to a minimum and at least hold steady in the ratings numbers, it can almost be seen as a victory. That’s pretty much the best way to define Fox’s fortunes of late. After that dismal 2014-15 year, last year was a vast improvement in that it held steady, garnering a 1.9 rating among the 18-49 demo, allowing it to push past ABC to third place.
At least revenues were up, from $4.89 billion for the year ending June 30th, 2015, to $5.1 billion for the same period this year, a bump of 4 percent. It’s operating income was also up by the same 4 percent, which means the network was in the black, which is really most of what matters.
Still, the whole point of being a broadcast television network is to actually broadcast television programs that people want to watch. Over the years, that has obviously been a real hit or miss endeavor, but what has been somewhat consistent, at least, is the appearance of a sensation that captures the national attention and brings in millions and millions of viewers. First, it was American Idol, then, two years ago as the competition show was on a steady decline, it was Empire, an instant smash that solidified Taraji P. Henson’s status as a genuine TV star.
The 13-episode first season, in 2014-15, averaged over 17.3 million viewers per week, which made it the fifth most-watched show of the season, but its 7.1 rating was actually second to NBC Sunday Night Football. Last year, in what was considered a creative drop off, it fell to 15.3 million viewers and a 6.4 rating, but the standings were identical. Fifth in total viewers, second to the NFL on NBC in rating. If that doesn’t perfectly illustrate a natural erosion of viewership, not much else will.
Now about to start its third season, Empire has become the flagship show for the network, since Idol has passed into the ether. It’s also the only returning scripted show that finished last season in the top 60 (the X-Files mini-series finished seventh and the Sunday night NFL wrap-up show The OT came in at 11). That’s not a typo. The next highest audience a scripted Fox show corralled was the freshman drama Lucifer, which came in at 62, with an average of 7.1 million viewers per week and a rating in that all-important 18-49 demo of 2.4. That last number might not seem so impressive, but when you consider that it actually places the show tied for 27th there, it’s a slightly different story. Two other first-year dramas — Rosewood and Scream Queens — were solid if unspectacular in their debut seasons, with Scream Queens only drawing 4.3 million viewers per week, but scoring a solid demo and being a buzzworthy show that grabbed a lot of attention, even if it didn’t knock its viewership numbers out of the park.
Likewise, even as veteran shows like Bones, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Last Man on Earth, and Gotham all shed viewers (Gotham lost an average of over two million per week), others like New Girl and Hell’s Kitchen, actually gained in viewers from the year before, which is a rarer occurrence than it should be. Still, put enough of those together, and you get an upward trend. That’s how a third place network becomes a second place one and, perhaps, starts to think about really challenging CBS at the top.
On the other hand, if other seasons are as much a bloodletting as last season’s was, it will be extremely difficult. Gone and already missed are Grandfathered and The Grinder, while the Frankenstein tale Second Chance and the film adaptation Minority Report were both extremely costly flops. Comedies Bordertown and Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life didn’t survive for long, nor did the period adventure drama Houdini and Doyle. That means that, of all the new shows that debuted last season, only three survived. Not the trend any network would be looking for.
This brings us to the new season, which has just begun and has four new shows on the fall schedule, though midseason is chock a block with fresh programming. The four current newbies include three dramas and a comedy, and the early word on them is decidedly mixed. Only one, the female major league baseball drama Pitch, has been getting raves. Two of the other shows are movie adaptations, and while The Exorcist seems to have some good word behind it, Lethal Weapon does not. Nor, for that matter, does the live action/animation hybrid Son of Zorn, which appears to be a rare misfire for the previously bulletproof directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miler.
Of course, with irony being what it is, of these four, only Pitch had a weak premiere. The others all debuted relatively strongly. Name recognition probably has a lot to do with the success of the two dramas and absurdity for Zorn, so we’ll have to check back in a few weeks to see if it holds.
Aside from Empire’s slot on Wednesdays at 9, there isn’t really a spot on the fall schedule that should lead to any kind of victory for the network. Sundays after football is the two-plus hour comedy block of The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, Zorn, and Last Man, none of which pull in huge numbers anymore; Monday is Gotham and Lucifer; Tuesday is the Brooklyn Nine-Nine/New Girl/Scream Queens combo; and Empire’s lead in is the aforementioned Lethal Weapon, which may continue to do fine numbers, but it won’t beat Survivor. Thursday’s combination of Rosewood and Pitch is a fourth-place one, and Friday’s Hell’s Kitchen/Exorcist pairing might be enough to beat NBC’s Caught on Camera/Grimm and The CW’s The Vampire Diaries/Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but that’s no gimme.
More promising, really, is what happens after the first of the year, when no less than six new shows (three dramas, two comedies, and a reality competition show) appear on the network, as well as the mid-season premiere of a returning show, a rebooted classic, and a long-awaited sequel, green lit in an effort to ape the success of The X-Files return.
New stuff first: A.P.B. is a high-tech cop show that has undergone major behind the scenes changes after the show’s creator departed due to, all together now, “creative differences,” but that didn’t stop the network from ordering a dozen episodes. Shots Fired is a 10-episode limited series about the investigation into the shooting of a white teen by a black cop. Star is another music industry drama from Lee Daniels, features Queen Latifah, and has a 13-episode order even though it, too, lost its showrunner over those same, pesky creative differences.
The two comedies are The Mick, which features It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Caitlin Olson as a con artist forced to care for her niece and nephews after her sister and brother-in-law flee the country, and Making History, with Adam Pally and Leighton Meester, about three friends who try to balance the thrill of time travel with the mundane concerns of their present-day lives. Both shows also got 13 episode orders, while Kicking and Screaming is the competition show that sees 10 expert survivalists paired with pampered partners, and sounds like exactly the kind of show that people will love to hate and hate to love.
Sleepy Hollow returns with a series reboot, relocating the action to Washington D.C. and without the services of original co-star Nicole Beharie, in what the network hopes will allow the show to return to the success it had in its first season. It joins the Kiefer Sutherland-free 24: Legacy, which introduces a brand new hero on a brand new assignment to save the world in a single day, while the Prison Break sequel picks up seven years after the series ended with big surprises and a whole new prison from which to break. That’s nine shows that aren’t on the fall schedule that Fox hopes will help continue last year’s ratings rise.
The development slate has some interesting projects on it, like the comedic X-Files take Ghosted, with Adam Scott and Craig Robinson; the Greg Berlanti-led superhero show Black Lightning;, a futuristic, live-action dramedy from Seth MacFarlane, who created and will star in the show alongside Adrienne Palicki; another superhero show from Marvel about the parents of mutant children; two shows from Empire creators Daniels and Danny Strong (each is behind one of the shows, with Daniels working on an untitled show featuring comedian Ms. Pat, and Strong’s a legal show about a team of civil rights lawyers); as well as the animated Okies of Bel Air (which is exactly what the title suggests); a spy show from House creator David Shore and director McG; a comedy project from prolific husband-wife team Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy; and several genre shows that include a new take on King Arthur, a werewolf drama, and at least two other shows about the paranormal.
So it’s not like the network is just standing pat and hoping for the best. There’s some very different fare mixed in with the standard legal and cop stuff, which is almost certainly what it’s going to take for Fox to rise back to the top again. Unless, of course, it can find another sensation like American Idol, or a couple more shows that could work as companions and ratings magnets for Empire.
There’s no real easy way to climb the ladder, other than to keep trying to innovate. Yes, there is plenty of the familiar on the horizon — clearly, no network ever went broke airing cop shows, legal shows or medical shows, and if it ain’t broke … you know the rest — but one of the things that Fox has always been willing to do more than its competitors is take the big swing. It’s easy to say now, but 24 was not a sure thing when it was created. Same with Empire. A modern day King Lear set in the music industry? Who could have predicted that would become what it did?
It’s thinking like that, thinking that decided to take a chance on bringing a British singing competition show to these shores 15 years ago, which has led to success in the past. It’s probably the best way to get success in the future, too.
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