NBC-Fox rivalry ranges from exec hires to series
Kevin Reilly wants to kick NBC’s ass.
The incoming Fox Entertainment prexy would never say it so bluntly — at least in public. But given his rocky tenure at the Peacock, capped by the way he was kicked out the door over Memorial Day weekend, nobody would be surprised if Reilly wanted to inflict some pain on NBC.
Reilly’s revenge would be sweet, even if it meant spanking the new shows he developed just a few months ago. “I work for Fox now, and I look forward to giving NBC a hard time,” a diplomatic Reilly told Variety last week.
Oh, it’s on.
Reilly’s ascension to Fox adds fuel to what has already been a long-simmering rivalry between the two nets.
Even before Reilly’s leap back into the ring, both NBC and Fox had already amped up the competition in recent years. And it’s not just in the executive ranks. The two sides are butting heads in every area, from scripted to unscripted, sports to cable news and even on the corporate level.
Still, the NBC/Fox faceoff is mostly competitive, and not the kind of bitter feud that marked the NBC/CBS battle at its peak nearly a decade ago.
NBC and Fox’s corporate parents are even partnered, in one instance, to create an online video service (currently dubbed NewCo) to rival YouTube. And both corporations have a vested interest in making sure NBC’s “House” is a hit on Fox, and 20th’s “My Name Is Earl” thrives on NBC.
But things are getting nastier. Just a few weeks ago, NBC made a strong play for Fox reality guru Mike Darnell, whose contract has expired. And last week, the two nets attempted to one-up the other with a pair of rival singing shows.
The karaoke craziness over “The Singing Bee” and “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” is just the latest unscripted skirmish to break out between Fox and NBC. Most famously, the two nets actually went to court after NBC accused Fox of ripping off the concept behind its DreamWorks/Mark Burnett-produced boxing skein “The Contender.” There were even reports of top-level execs from the two nets nearly getting into screaming matches over the matter.
This time, the competition has been much more low-key, with NBC opting to fight rather than sue.
Peacock’s project was announced first last spring, but Fox surprised NBC in June by announcing a July premiere date for its singing skein. Peacock hadn’t planned to put “Singing Bee” on air until fall at the earliest, but Fox’s actions triggered a strong response from NBC.
“We said, ‘No, we’re not going to let them poison the well this time,’ says an NBC insider. “We decided we needed to be a little more aggressive instead of just saying, ‘Let the best man win.’ ”
Of course, Fox doesn’t just pick on NBC when it comes to cloning. Net has infuriated ABC just as often by putting together its own takes on skeins such as “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny.”
But don’t be surprised if Fox and NBC clash over reality shows even more in the next year, as the Peacock figures to try even more bold new reality concepts under Ben Silverman’s watch.
The competish has been just as fierce on the scripted side.
A few years ago, NBC’s studio arm developed two doctor dramas. One, dubbed “Medical Investigation,” ended up on the Peacock net, and got off to a decent start in the ratings. The other show ended up on Fox, and started off very slowly in the ratings.
Jeff Zucker, who was running NBC Entertainment, was asked at the time if he’d rather have the Fox medical drama. “No,” he told a reporter. “We’ve got the right show.”
As it turned out, he didn’t. “Medical Investigation” quickly flatlined. Fox’s show turned into a monster hit called “House.”
The tale illustrates a key part of the NBC-Fox rivalry: The two nets are clearly chasing after many of the same eyeballs when it comes to scripted development.
“We do find ourselves battling for many of the same projects,” says an NBC insider. “There’s a definite overlap of the footprint the two networks have in demos and target audiences.”
That’s evidenced in both nets’ fall slates. NBC has a drama about a time-traveling cop (“Journeyman”), while Fox has an hour about a cop who’s timeless (“Amsterdam”).
Fox’s big comedy hope, “Back to You,” is toplined by a longtime Peacock thesp (Kelsey Grammer), while one of new NBC chief Silverman’s fave new shows is “Chuck” — from Josh Schwartz, creator of the former Fox hit “The OC.”
Meanwhile, in the sports world, Fox last fall created its own NFL postgame show, “The OT,” to use opposite NBC’s “Football Night in America” in an attempt to keep football fans from tuning over to NBC’s primetime package of games. There’s also some bad blood because of the blockbuster games the league gives NBC from Fox’s NFC conference (for example, the Cowboys, Bears and Giants each appear twice on NBC in the first month of the season.)
Then there’s the Reilly move. Read the press release announcing his Fox appointment closely, and it’s clear the exec is sending a message to NBC and everyone about how he feels he was treated at the Peacock.
“The company has a top-down vision and the network has a collaborative environment and winning track record fostered by Peter Liguori, which I personally look forward to as a refreshing change of pace,” Reilly says in the release.
Fox’s hiring of the man just fired by NBC comes as the Peacock is looking to steal away Darnell, one of Fox’s best and brightest. The dark prince of reality is currently being heavily courted by Silverman.
Losing Darnell would be a blow to Fox and a big get for NBC. But as of last week, Darnell was still mulling his options.
Meanwhile, several other execs have traded one home for the other in recent years. Last month, NBC U studio drama exec Laura Lancaster hopped to Fox as its new drama chief.
Preston Beckman, who headed scheduling at NBC during its glory run in the 1990s, now does the same thing at Fox. And former NBC Enterprises topper Ed Wilson jumped ship to become Fox TV Network president.
So where does this competitive frenzy come from?
In the history of television, it was NBC and CBS that traditionally duked it out for viewer supremacy. ABC finally came to play (and win) in the late 1970s, but even back then, the Alphabet was targeting a slightly different audience than the Eye and the Peacock.
That fighting spirit continued up until the late 1990s, when NBC’s Warren Littlefield and CBS’ Leslie Moonves would go toe-to-toe on industry panels and in the press, while other networks — including scrappy little Fox — looked on in amusement. (Later, Moonves and NBC’s Jeff Zucker revived the rivalry.)
But then a few things happened to alter the competitive landscape: NBC lost football, something Fox had; Fox started dominating the adults 18-49 race thanks to “American Idol”; and the Peacock watched as one by one, its signature hit comedies retired.
Ten years ago, NBC was the primetime power, while Fox was the fourth-place net and still not seen as much of a threat. A decade later, their positions have flipped, as the Peacock has resided in the basement for three straight years. That reversal of fortune upset the balance between the 80-year-old NBC and the 20-year-old Fox.
Now that Fox has grown up, its audience target most closely rivals NBC’s (while more femme-centric ABC and older CBS go after slightly different auds).
That has probably fueled the rising tension between both nets.
Even the corporations that own NBC and Fox have gotten into the ring, as the battle between news stars (NBC’s Keith Olbermann and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly) and this fall’s get-the-popcorn-ready business channel cagematch prove.