Fox rethinks the way it draws auds

New thinking at Fox has led to the reinvention of a department with a different approach to diversity initiatives.

In February, the News Corp. unit rebranded its “audience strategy” team under the new leadership of Nicole Bernard at the behest of Peter Rice, chairman of entertainment for Fox Networks Group, and Kevin Reilly, Fox Broadcasting entertainment prexy. Bernard, senior veep of audience strategy for the Fox Group, previously led standards and practices at the network for six years.

In the ensuing months, Bernard has moved quickly to make changes, some of which will already be apparent in the fall season, when new series will display a marked ethnic diversity. But less obvious shifts are also under way that will affect existing functions both internally and externally, from the writers program to relations with myriad grass-roots orgs.

To execute these changes, Bernard has had to shake up the staff, eliminating three lower-level positions and installing two new VPs. Earlier this month, Stephen Wong was brought in from another News Corp. division, Fox Look; another hire, Alyse Bobb, senior VP of business affairs at MySpace, starts next week.

Bringing in more experienced, fiscally minded execs reflects the fundamental reorientation of the audience-strategy department to one that sees diversity less as a moral imperative than a financial one.

“It should drive the business as opposed to purely raising awareness about how important diversityis,” Bernard said. “I think the department has always resonated more as an altruistic, social thing when it’s exactly the opposite.”

Fox is looking to revamp its writers program, which typically functions as a training program for minority writers, providing little assistance beyond helping with script development. The new program will not only be extended from several months to an entire year but will be modeled on medical residencies so that “rotations” of six to eight weeks expose participating writers to different parts of the business.

In keeping with the rotation sensibility, the program will seek to cross-pollinate talent across all FNG units including TV, film, cable and digital. The initiative, overseen jointly by the broadcast net and 20th Century Fox, will add another strategic partner Bernard can’t yet disclose.

Moreover, rather than just helping scribes punch up their scripts, the writers program will look to funnel participants into opportunities at Fox, such as staffing on the networks’ scripted series.

The audience-strategy group will also move away from an emphasis on sponsorships for advocacy orgs to working more closely with them on cooperative efforts that will be financed by a new endowment fund connecting those efforts to measurable mutual goals.

“We want true engagement with media coalitions,” said Bernard of groups like NAACP. “Rather than writing a check and walking away from it, there will be criteria put in place on what we can do together.”

Fox will also retool its Journey to Excellence program, which offers all sorts of highly generalized mentorships to at-risk youth. The program will be extended to Fox-affiliated stations and focused on arts and sports in order to better tap the company’s core competencies. The program itself will also be the subject of marketing efforts like public-service announcements that will allow Journey to Excellence to double as a branding tool.

The catalyst for these new efforts was an event held on the Fox lot in December that brought together about 300 creatives, from showrunners to agents, for a broad-based discussion on the subject. The event had immediate, albeit superficial, results: A cursory look at the new Fox series demonstrates the drive for diverse casts, from the interracial couples at the heart of new series “Terra Nova” and “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” to the racial composition of the judges’ table on “The X Factor.”

But part of the new initiative is also about thinking beyond simply ethnic diversity. For instance, producers on midseason drama “Touch,” which will depict a central character with autism, are already in contact with advocacy groups with sensitivities to how mental illnesses are depicted on TV.

It’s all just a taste of what’s to come from the audience-strategy group, which is conscious of the fact that it isn’t easy deviating from tradition in the TV business. Bernard said, “I know change might be met unfavorably or with resistance, but we don’t believe this is pie in the sky.”

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