It’s the TV equivalent of the Atkins diet. But rather than swearing off carbs, 20th Century Fox TV is shedding deals and producing less series.
The studio landed 20 series on this fall’s primetime skeds, down from a then-record 24 in 2001. And after dominating all comers in recent years, 20th has been eclipsed this fall by Warner Bros. — which will produce a staggering 27 primetime skeins.
But that’s all part of the new plan at 20th, execs say. The hope that a slightly thinner roster will positively impact the studio’s bottom line as 20th springs for fewer failures.
Call it a case of trying to cut out some empty calories, which almost every studio consumed in the go-go late 1990s.
It may seem like a given, but 20th toppers say they want to put more effort into focusing on shows that are likely to become long-term hits — and less on mediocre entries that might still get on the air, but have little chance of surviving into syndication.
“It’s pretty obvious that the economics of this business are in hits right now, and we are constantly adjusting our economic mandate in order to try to help us create them,” says News Corp. chief operating officer Peter Chernin.
The new regimen comes after 20th spent the last few years beefing up its roster and filling its plate with as many primetime series as possible.
“I think there was a time where we may have been a little bit caught up in volume, two or three years ago,” Chernin says. “Hey, what do I care where we stand on that studio scorecard? What I care about is: Are we doing great work, and in the long term, what’s the profitability of the company?”
Chernin first articulated that “less is more” doctrine to 20th Century Fox TV presidents Gary Newman and Dana Walden while flying back to Los Angeles after the May 2001 upfronts.
While toasting their success, Chernin, Newman and Walden knew the champagne would soon turn flat — given TV’s high rate of failure.
“Coming back from that big selling season with a record 24 shows, Gary and I knew in our heart of hearts that we had set up a couple of projects that just didn’t make sense,” Walden says. “It didn’t exactly come as a shock when Peter sat us down to express his concern.”
Two years later, 20th is no longer tops in volume, but Chernin and Fox Television Entertainment chair Sandy Grushow appear pleased with their charges’ restraint.
“All successful businesses need to evolve and need to be responsive to a changing economic environment,” Grushow says. “It’s obvious now is the time to be more discriminating than ever, which is not to say we’re not aggressive. We’ll invest as much, if not more than before, in shows we believe in.
“On the other hand, we don’t want to be in the deficit business just for the sake of being the quote-unquote ‘No. 1′ producer of television shows,” he says. “I’m not being critical of Warner Bros.’ strategy. That’s just not a model that makes sense for us to adhere to.”
And it shows: Despite still dominating Fox’s primetime lineup, the studio is producing just three out of its sib net’s seven new shows.
(20th, of course, isn’t the only sib studio in Fox’s family. Fox TV Studios, led by David Grant, produces reality series, telepics and scripted skeins, and oversees the company’s investment in “Malcolm in the Middle” producer Regency TV.)
20th is also trying to make good on its promise to service more than just its sibling network. That’s best highlighted on Fridays in the 8 p.m. hour, where the studio has shows on ABC, NBC, Fox and the WB.
“People totally get it — we’ve been public in our point of view; we do no one any favors when we deliver a show to Fox that’s better suited to another network,” Newman says. “Then Fox suffers and the studio suffers.”
Of course, 20th still occasionally runs afoul of Fox’s rivals. And the jury’s still out on whether 20th has swung too far in the other direction and missed out on key deals that would have led to big hits. (The studio has ceded most of the non-writing producer “pod” business to Warner Bros., for example.)
20th execs are now focused on finding the next “The X-Files”- and “The Simpsons”-style megahit — the kind that crosses platforms and makes money for several News Corp. divisions. And “24” may well be on its way to becoming that kind of franchise.
“It’s one of those rare phenomenon when the planets do align correctly,” Newman says. “I feel like ‘X-Files’ and ‘The Simpsons’ are two of the most significant success stories that any company in our business has ever had.”
Josef Adalian contributed to this report.