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Fox TV CEO Dana Walden Talks Drama Prospects, ‘Empire’ and Comedy Challenges

It’s been a bumpy fall for Fox Broadcasting Co., with rave reviews but weak ratings for its newcomer “Pitch,” a string of unavoidable preemptions for tentpole “Empire” and challenges in bringing younger viewers to linear screens for live-action comedies. On the plus side, frosh drama “Lethal Weapon” has lived up to expectations, the network hosted a once-in-a-generation World Series and is looking forward to the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.

Dana Walden, who is Fox Television Group chairman-CEO alongside Gary Newman, spoke of the hurdles and opportunities faced so far this season in an interview Wednesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena.

Walden stressed that Fox is gearing up for a super-charged second half that hopefully will restock the network’s drama bench. “24: Legacy” launches behind the Super Bowl and another high-octane drama, “APB” bowing the following night. The provocative “Shots Fired” bows March 22 in tandem with the midseason return of “Empire.” And “Prison Break” begins anew on April 4.

“Empire” has seen some erosion in its third season although it remains formidable. It had a stop-and-start schedule in the fall as it faced preemptions in October and early November presidential debate, two World Series games. Then it had the tough job of returning to the schedule on Nov. 9, the day after the presidential election shock, when “nobody in this country was thinking about scripted content,” Walden said.

“This has been a really good year creatively for the show,” Walden said. “No other show could have tolerated that schedule.” She added that “Empire” has plans to add some characters in the second half of its season “that will create a really interesting dynamic for (the Lyon) family.”

On the comedy front, Fox has been encouraged by the performance to date of “The Mick.” Walden is extremely high on the potential of star Kaitlin Olson, who she described as a comedian in the vein of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. “I think she’s a force of nature,” she said.

Fox is searching for “every opportunity to give it exposure” beyond the show’s Tuesday 8:30 p.m. slot. Fox’s Tuesday comedy block has been hit with ratings declines on a linear basis, and yet the multiplatform numbers add up to a healthy audience for “New Girl” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

“That is the challenge of having a show that is extremely popular with a younger demo. They’re not going backwards. They’re not going to watch it live,” Walden said. “But if you look at the viewership over time, any streaming service would die to have ‘Brooklyn’s’ numbers.”

Fox is already talking with producers about a pickup for a seventh season of “New Girl” (“they have such a fun, clever and original idea”) and she pointed to the renewed round of affection expressed by critics for “Brooklyn’s” latest batch of episodes. Fox is not giving up on live-action comedy — Walden has her eye on finding another workplace comedy — but sitcoms as a business proposition are in need of reinvention, she acknowledged.

“We just have to be patient and keep innovating in the way that we monetize our viewers,” she said.

(Pictured: Dana Walden, “Prison Break” star Dominic Purcell, Fox’s Gary Newman and “Prison Break’s” Wentworth Miller)

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