Kevin Reilly: Net is mindful of responsibility, but auds make choices

The premiere of Fox’s edgy serial-killer drama “The Following” arrives just as the major TV nets are facing renewed scrutiny of the level of violence in entertainment programming.

On Tuesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly was on the defensive when pressed by journos on media violence questions that have become a hot topic in the wake of last month’s shooting rampage that left 26 people dead, 20 of them children, at a Connecticut elementary school.

Echoing the sentiment of NBC boss Robert Greenblatt, who faced similar questions in his sesh on Sunday, Reilly argued that the root causes of mass killings and other shocking acts of violence are far more complicated than those who point the finger at the TV screen suggest.

“It is now a part of a much larger tapestry and a very complex media landscape where there is access 24 hours a day at your fingertips on the web and on cable news, as well as all of the other entertainment and media choices, from gaming to television,” Reilly said. “So it’s a much more complex conversation.”

Reilly asserted that viewers have the right to choose to watch an intense scripted drama, especially when marketing campaigns make it clear that a show will push the envelope.

“We’re in the culture business. You are constantly monitoring cultural shifts, current events, shifts in mores, things that reflect society — that is, we both reflect society and at times we try to drive it. It comes with a responsibility. he said. “I don’t like to trivialize an issue by drawing a direct linkage between anything, but we take everything we do — everything we put on the air — with the utmost responsibility. I have a lot of sleepless nights.”

“The Following,” which bows Jan. 21, boasts a degree of gore and intensity rarely seen on broadcast TV in what’s clearly a response to the success of graphic hit cable dramas such as AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Series starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy revolves around a serial killer with a cult-like following of people who commit murders while he’s in custody.

Bringing this grittier, darker fare to broadcast is almost a necessity since, as Reilly noted, “I’m competing with every show on cable.”

“When you’re doing a thriller, you must compete on that level,” Reilly said. “We put thousands of hours of television on every year between sports and entertainment. … We put on a broad array of shows.

While a show like “The Following” may occupy another broadcast net’s 10 p.m. timeslot due to its mature content, Reilly noted that Fox has only “two hours to program” in primetime since Fox affils carry news in the 10 p.m. berth.

In spite of the timeslot, Reilly said the thriller “adheres to our broadcast standards” and “there is nothing in the show” that Fox “had to fight over.”

“You’re invested in (the show), so it feel more intense than it is,” he explained. “You market a show on a broad basis, and we are extremely sensitive to what we show on other parts of our airways.”

As shows like “Walking Dead” draw ratings that broadcasters envy, Reilly said programmers can’t ignore the auds’ “appetite” for violent fare. “At a certain point, an audience selects, and they know what they’re getting or what they’re not getting,” he said. “That’s the business we’re in: providing things that people like.”

“Following” creator-exec producer Kevin Williamson said during a later sesh that the violence in the show was organic to the storytelling rather than a marketing gimmick.

His biggest challenge was maintaining a high level of suspense.

“The struggle for me with network TV is the six-act structure and creating suspense: How do you make something scary when you’re writing to a commercial break,” said Williamson, whose feature credits include the “Scream” franchise and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”

Williamson’s favorite TV series, “24,” provided some inspiration for “The Following,” as did “Silence of the Lambs.”

” ’24’ was a fast-paced thriller,” he said. “I wanted (‘The Following’) to move at that adrenaline rate. When it comes to the violence, there are definitely moments where it’s not for the faint of heart. But you take it episode by episode. Each one is different.”

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