JERUSALEM — Fox Television Group CEO Dana Walden opened the INTV conference on innovation in television by asserting that Fox’s entertainment programming seeks to tackle “important” topics while shying away from overtly political messages at a time of great polarization in U.S. culture.
“We certainly don’t want to tackle politics right now. I think the best entertainment tackles social issues in a sort of seamless way,” Walden told Keshet CEO Avi Nir in a Q&A that led off the conference organized by Israel’s Keshet Media Group.
Walden pointed to the past example of Fox’s “Glee” and its cast of characters from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as sexual orientations. “You have to entertain first. I am not interested in being a soapbox but I am interested in having important content,” Walden said.
The viewership of that important content has experienced a seismic shift, she added, a massive change that has prompted her to no longer regard the overnight ratings reports.
Television viewership is now unfolding on a three- and seven-day window, Walden told Nir, and part of goal at the top of Fox is to adjust to that new reality.
“We are trying to orient our company to the fact that viewers are watching shows in a much different way … the tail of our content is very long and advertisers pay us for a seven-day window,” she said. “Just like we’re trying to be contemporary in how we platform our shows to our viewers, we have to be contemporary about how we evaluate the ratings and the research.”
In a lighthearted chat, heavy on the graphics and video, Nir and Walden engaged in a friendly back-and-forth that included a mock hacking of Walden’s phone — what would it look like, Nir said, if when Walden arrived in Tel Aviv, security had checked out the speed dial conversations on her phone and looked at her correspondence the screenwriters and producers who have helped the 20th Century Fox TV studio that she also runs turn out hits like NBC’s hit freshman drama “This is Us” as well as Showtime’s “Homeland” (based on a Keshet format) and ABC’s “Modern Family.”
When Nir asked Walden what a conversation with “This is Us” creator Dan Fogelman would look like, Walden explained that 20th TV waited eight years to bring him into the fold. The prolific showrunner had previously been under contract to ABC Studios.
“You waited all that time? You had him in as a target?” Nir asked. “It’s like a Biblical story, like Jacob’s seven years of waiting.”
“At ABC, all of his shows were held hostage, whether they were right for that network or not,” Walden said. “So our sell to Dan was that you need to be at a place where the studio is as important as the network and the project is going to be evaluated individually and we’re going to put your shows in the place.”
Walden also gave a little insight into why reboots, such as Fox’s “Prison Break” and “Lethal Weapon,” have been such a hit with American audiences — the same factors of binge watching and at-home streaming that have led her to dismiss one-day ratings and focus instead on a long game.
“There’s financial incentive,” she said. “It’s a good piece of business. And youv’e got rabid fan bases on all of these shows, where they’ve connected through Netflix. ‘Prison Break’ on Netflix has generated a whole new generation of viewers. These are the smallest part of our roster but they get the most attention because people love them and they are familiar.”
Nir wrapped up his chat with Walden by noting that the two were together in Jerusalem, so in addition to looking at the Hollywood players who populate her iPhone’s speed dial, he could also offer some magic, courtesy of the Holy City.
“You’re in Jerusalem near the Wailing Wall, and you can get one wish,” he told Walden. “Who would you call? We’ll facilitate. Anyone in the past, or future, even 3,000 years ago.”
Walden’s answer? “I would call my Grandma Rose,” she said. Walden told the audience that her grandmother, who died in 2001 at 108, was the longest-living survivor of the historic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Walden’s grandmother survived the blaze— one of the deadliest industrial disasters in American history — by thinking quick and realizing that the factory’s executives were one floor above her and likely being evacuated. She slipped upstairs and joined them, and made it out alive.
Two generations later, her granddaughter hasn’t forgotten that lesson. “She was an extraordinary woman,” Walden said. “I regret not talking to her more about her experiences. It’s still challenging for women today.”