Fox cut a significant figure at this year’s just-concluded NATPE, promoting its forthcoming Meredith Vieira-hosted game show, 25 Words or Less, and getting its messages out on multiple executive panels.
The activity level is not a radical departure from past years, but the Miami conference offered the industry one of the clearest views yet of the company that will remain after the merger with Disney is finally consummated this year.
The entity formerly known as 21st Century Fox has been re-christened Fox Corp., with the final regulatory approval expected in the coming weeks for Disney’s $71.3 billion purchase of most of the company. The remaining elements of Fox are all healthy assets: Fox News, rising sports network FS1, the Fox broadcast network and a portfolio of local TV stations that ranks No. 1 in terms of revenue among all groups, whether private or network-owned.
Jack Abernethy, the longtime CEO of the stations who stepped away from his previous additional oversight role at Fox News, offered a typically straightforward outlook for the post-merger company.
“We’ll be smaller. We will be simpler. Easier to make decisions, easier to navigate,” Abernethy said. Asked by Deadline about the pros and the cons of the Disney deal, Abernethy was reiterated a sentiment from his keynote remarks. “The con may be size,” he said, “but given what we’re trying to do, I’m not so sure it’s as big a con as people think.”
The stations were big contributor to the $5.1 billion of fiscal 2018 revenue in the company’s TV unit, which accounts for half of the overall revenue for the new Fox. Ben Swinburne, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, just issued an upbeat new look at Fox, bumping up his valuation and maintaining his “overweight” rating on its stock. “While New Fox is essentially a portfolio of U.S. linear TV networks, we see growth characteristics that are meaningfully stronger than other publicly traded TV network peers,” he wrote
Twentieth Television, which produces syndicated shows like Page Six TV and Divorce Court, in addition to selling off-net rights to several major Fox TV and film titles, is among the assets moving to Disney. But the situation for stations differs a bit from that of the broadcast network, where the shift of Fox’s TV production to Disney dramatically altered the dynamic given networks’ increasing hunger for owned (not acquired) programming. The stations will still be able to air several potent titles, including Debmar-Mercury’s The Wendy Williams Show.
Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming for Fox Stations, did not offer an update on Williams, who recently stepped away from the show for health reasons. Fox also has declined to address speculation about Billy Bush joining the network once former NBC staple Extra moves into the Fox fold.
Cicha took some time during Fox’s NATPE party at the Soho Beach House to speak with Deadline about the makeup of 25 Words or Less and the general outlook of programming on the stations as the corporate landscape changes.
The company operates duopolies in several major markets, including New York, LA, Chicago and Houston. There are 28 Fox stations in 17 markets, covering 38% of U.S. homes and the company has been eagerly evaluating possible acquisition targets, especially in markets that align with NFL football (an expanded presence in Fox thanks to Thursday night games).
That array of stations gives Fox “a lot of shelf space to fill,” as Cicha puts it. As with M&A on the station front, the company has made moves to upgrade its offerings, knowing that stations will be more important than ever in the new era. The group put in aggressive bids for rights to mainstays Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, only to lose out to ABC stations.
For 25 Words, the company once again made use of testing, a tool that other network-owned station groups are much less reliant on: testing during the summer season.
“Our motivation is to put as much new product on the air as we can at a time when there’s not a lot of new product.” … Part of the motivation with testing is to not lose money.” It is also more efficient on the cost side, he added. “Spend $1 million instead of $20 million. That’s just the way to go.”
For Vieira, who has worked significant stretches of her career at CBS News, NBC’s Today and ABC’s The View, is having her most extensive Fox experience to date on 25 Words.
She credited Stephen Brown, EVP of Development for the station group, for pursuing her after her Today exit back in 2011. A subsequent syndicated talk show foray by Vieira with NBC fizzled, but Brown stayed on the case, suggesting her for 25 Words, especially given her history at the helm of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire during its syndicated run. “It’s a group of people who I really respect,” she said of Fox and the show’s producing team, adding that the LA crew shooting the show is “spooky-good.”