Fox Television Group Chairman and CEO Dana Walden says, “Great entertainment can also have a great social message,” but, “the best entertainment tackles social issues in a seamless way.” Walden, who was speaking at the INTV conference here in Jerusalem, referenced upcoming event series, Shots Fired, which examines the aftermath of two racially charged shootings in a small Southern town. This was during a wide-ranging talk that touched on the network’s current roster and 20th TV’s breakout NBC drama This Is Us, as well as why the broadcast network doesn’t have a current affairs program. We also spoke afterwards about renewal chances for shows like 24: Legacy, Pitch, The Exorcist and Gotham.
The latter, she expects, will return. With regard to 24: Legacy, Walden is feeling mixed. “I’m a little sad because I feel like it’s a really good show. We’re doing about 7-8 million viewers over seven days per episode. It’s not terrible. We had really high hopes for the show. Perhaps our launch strategy was a little over-ambitious.” The show first aired after the Super Bowl which ran late and the second episode was the following night. “Then we were off to the races,” Walden said, “and there was catch-up involved. I think people weren’t clear about when the next episode would be, even though we messaged a lot. Messages get lost after a game like that. So, I’m feeling mixed. I feel very proud of the show and extremely grateful to the creators and the great actors who have done a really wonderful job. I’m wondering whether broadcast can sustain something so serialized.”
On its renewal chances, Walden told me, “We’re going to see. I would love nothing more than to bring it back because I thought it was great but we’re just going to have to see how our pilots come in, how it continues to perform and weigh all of the information we have in May.”
The network has also rebooted hit movies Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist and is bringing back Prison Break. But they are on a case-by-case basis rather than a trend. “For our owned-IPs, there is huge incentive because the shows are very valuable and we are adding to the library. In some cases, we can sell an entire library based on just 10 or 12 new episodes. With virtually every other new show, you’re looking at a deficit when you start.”
Is The Exorcist coming back? Along with Pitch, Walden said, “Both are very much in the conversation. Not sure. Exorcist actually improved our time period on Friday night by about 35% and it’s an interesting opportunity. It’s never going to be a big ratings winner because of the serialized nature but I thought the show was really good and it was very consistent. Pitch? Bigger conversation.”
She had earlier called it “a great show. It’s a little bit of a tweener. It’s a female-skewing idea, but it’s about baseball and men watch baseball. So we’ve tried and the delayed-viewing is excellent. Now we have to make a tough decision which is in this environment is it possible to grow Pitch to 6 or 7 million viewers on a seven-day metric?”
Turning back to Shots Fired, and earlier series like Glee, Fox is “not trying to lead with a message. We don’t view that as our mission. You have to entertain first. We’re not interested in being on a soapbox,” Walden said.
But what about news and current events programming? Is that missing from the network? Walden was asked. She explained that Simpsons shorts are doing a good job of addressing issues and explained, “Our news is Fox News. It’s a cable channel and has nothing to do frankly with the entertainment area of the company. It’s the model of how this company was launched and there are a lot of independent stations and Fox O&Os who have hugely successful news that our programming is the lead-in for. I think for viewers of Fox they are still feeling the connection to news and coverage of what’s going on. a lot of times they are the number 1 news in their markets, but it’s just not part of the DNA of this company.”
After the session, I asked Walden if there was something in particular about the Donald Trump era that is informing what scripted shows are moving forward. She told me, “It’s hard to find a great answer because programming is not that simple. The development process is not that simple… When I started working at Fox in 92, the company had decided that dramas were dead. They weren’t viable businesses and because newsmagazines were so efficient to produce and financially so much more tolerable than a drama. So that year our company developed very few dramas. One thing was The X-Files and David Bochco developed NYPD Blue on the lot. Both billion-dollar shows.”
Talking about the Fox-produced NBC breakout drama This Is Us, which is on its way to becoming the biggest show on broadcast, Walden continued, “Whatever over-correction I think sitting here today the U.S. public might want could be totally wrong. You have to develop a broad range of projects. One thing we’ve seen with This Is Us is that people want to escape a little bit into the lives of others with beautiful emotional storylines where a country that needs a good cry can have one without seeming crazy. So I would say my real takeaway is that we should all be pushing for extreme emotion. That doesn’t mean extremely sad, but extreme interactions between human beings. To more narrowly define it means that we risk being the company that doesn’t develop any dramas the year people say people don’t want to watch dramas anymore. Genuine zeitgeist you cannot plan.”
So, why did This Is Us end up at NBC. “The script felt like Parenthood or Thirtysomething. It did not feel like a slam dunk Fox show. It was incredible quality with incredible characters… It didn’t take us very long to think about it with my studio hat on and think about where a show can be its best version… NBC has treated it like gold. They did every single thing to advantage this show and did it all right.”