Fox Broadcasting Faces Radical Changes — and No One Knows the End Result

Fox Blueprint Cover Story
Matthew Hollister for Variety

On the December day the Walt Disney Co. and 21st Century Fox announced a deal for the former to buy the bulk of the latter, Peter Rice addressed employees at a town hall meeting on the historic Fox lot in Los Angeles. The president of 21st Century Fox promised that no one present would have to move to Burbank anytime soon, and that where redundancies were identified, employees would receive “big severance packages.” He acknowledged the surprising swiftness with which rumors of a deal became reality, saying of Fox patriarch Rupert Murdoch, “I’ve been here for 30 years, and I never in my lifetime thought that Rupert would sell.” And he addressed head-on the ambivalence that permeated the gathering. “In uncertainty, there’s change,” Rice said. “And in change, there’s opportunity.”

If uncertainty leads to opportunity, Fox has opportunity to spare. Five months after it was announced, the Disney deal still appears more than a year away from getting a yea or nay from regulators. The key players await the outcome of AT&T’s $85 billion bid for Time Warner — as does Comcast, which is increasingly likely to make its own play for Fox. As the waiting drags on, Disney has given few signals of how it will integrate Fox’s studios and cable channels into its operations. Nor has Fox addressed key questions about how the Murdoch media empire will run once reduced to a rump state.

Nowhere are those questions more pressing — or their answers more obscured — than at Fox Broadcasting Co. The network, formed by Murdoch in the 1980s in a bold challenge to the Big Three broadcasters, will remain in the mogul’s hands post-Disney acquisition. But with its leadership in limbo, its programming model evolving and its importance to its parent company’s bottom line poised to grow, FBC is under mounting pressure to define its future.

István Szugyiczky for Variety

Such visions are often expressed by network chiefs at their annual presentations to advertisers. But at the Fox upfront May 14, buyers are treated to a pitch that acknowledges — and even at times makes light of — the potential long-term change ahead while avoiding some key specifics.

Leading the presentation, Fox Television Group CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman hype New Fox. (Newman, bragging that Fox’s “social sentiment” was up 93% last season, quips, “That’s so New Fox, I don’t even know what it means” — a line he ad-libbed in rehearsal and that played so well he includes it in the presentation.) But they also lean heavily on programming pieces that have been the network’s stock in trade for decades — scripted dramas and comedies, animation, live events. The message appears to be that Fox will change, but it will also stay the same.

Only one of those, of course, can be true.

Disney’s bid would see it acquire Fox’s film and television studios, entertainment cable channels, stake in streaming service Hulu and regional sports networks. Along with FBC and its owned affiliates, Fox Sports and Fox News would be left behind in a slimmed-down company. On the day the deal closes, FBC would become the only U.S. broadcast network without its own studio division.

At the upfront, Walden and Newman position the network’s looming divorce from the studio as a selling point. “As other networks are focused on monetizing ownership of their shows, they need to program with an eye toward viewers to the international market,” Walden tells ad buyers. “Our eye is on viewers right here in the United States.”

The tearing asunder of FBC from 20th Century Fox Television would defy what has, in the last two and a half decades, become the default way to run a national broadcaster. Since the elimination of fin-syn rules in 1993, owning as much programming as possible has become a guiding goal for the broadcast networks’ corporate parents. The rise of streaming video and the decline of live ratings has accelerated the importance of ownership to the point that the Big Four networks now rarely buy from studios other than their corporate siblings — and when they do, they demand half the pie.

Sans studio, FBC would become a grand experiment in whether it’s possible for a modern broadcast network to make money the old-fashioned way — by selling advertising against content that it is effectively renting.

At affiliate meetings in April, Fox executives also banged the “business as usual” drum, touting their ongoing commitment to entertainment programming and the flexibility that will come with being untethered to any one studio, with the freedom to buy from a wide range of sellers, each with its own stable of high-profile talent.

But the centerpiece of Fox’s pitch to advertisers for next season isn’t entertainment programming. Instead, it’s “Thursday Night Football,” to which it acquired the broadcast rights in January. Fox will pay an average $660 million per year for five NFL seasons — a 43% increase from what CBS and NBC paid to split the package last year.

Newman, speaking with Variety, positions the NFL as a useful additive to an entertainment-programming lineup that will benefit from its presence. “We’re going to have a great promotional opportunity both at the top of the week with our football games on Sunday, and on Thursday where we will get another boost from ‘Thursday Night Football,’” he says. Noting that the network has renewed four freshman dramas from the current season, he adds, “I think we have some strong young shows that have the potential to create a lot of stability in the schedule and some growth opportunity with enhanced promotional power that we have from the NFL.”

But the message of a broad entertainment brand is not being heard across the industry.

“Fox has been very, very clear that they’re doubling down in two areas — sports and news,” one top media buyer tells Variety. “For marketers who play a big role in that space, they’re going to be an important player.” The exec noted that with “Thursday Night Football” arriving on Fox in the fall, the network will be home to 40% of NFL salable impressions next season. “They’re attractive for advertisers where live is a priority, where sports is a priority or where news is a priority. They’re not going to be a big entertainment brand. For general entertainment advertisers, they’ll be less attractive.”

Fox leaders dispute this sentiment — noting that Fox News is sold separately from the rest of the company’s portfolio, that entertainment cable channels such as FX and National Geographic are still very much owned and operated by Fox and that the vast majority of FBC’s primetime schedule is and will continue to be devoted to scripted and unscripted entertainment.

Fox TV Group co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman came from the studio side of the business.
Corey Nickols

“Fox has every intention of remaining an entertainment broadcast network,” Newman says.

Longtime partners as studio chiefs of 20th Century Fox Television, Newman and Walden were promoted in 2014 to co-CEOs of Fox Television Group, adding oversight of FBC to their purview. The two execs had built 20th TV into arguably the biggest and most successful television studio in Hollywood, boasting critically acclaimed hits for platforms within the Fox family and outside it, such as “Homeland” at Showtime, “American Horror Story” at FX, “Empire” at FBC, and “Modern Family” at ABC.

The reorganization came as FBC’s ratings engine “American Idol” began to run out of gas, handing a network in transition to one of television’s most respected dealmakers in Newman and most admired creative executives in Walden. The idea was that, with full control of both the network and the studio, the pair would guide the studio’s best product to the network, making sure their shows were properly supported in terms of marketing, scheduling and creative input.

“We’ve been the odd man out in terms of how the other networks were aligned, and as competition for talent becomes more and more intense, having a big, powerful studio and a network aligned with each other is going to be a really good thing for our business,” Rice told reporters at the Television Critics Assn. Press Tour a week after Newman and Walden were promoted.

But while 20th TV continued to perform well, hitching the studio to the network did not create a fleet of hits that returned FBC to the top of the ratings heap. The biggest show developed by the studio since the reorganization, “This Is Us,” was passed on at FBC and sold to NBC. A year and a half after canceling “Idol,” Walden and Newman failed to land the FremantleMedia competition series revival, which wound up at ABC. Yet in an era when most scripted-television viewing is nonlinear, the two have succeeded in solidifying the network’s lineup. Next season will see FBC bring back three-quarters of the shows it debuted in 2017-18, including solid ratings performer “9-1-1.”

But the Disney deal, which would sever 20th TV from FBC, could do the same to Walden and Newman. Neither has spoken publicly about his or her possible destination.

Newman is rumored to be mulling a position at FBC that would allow him to guide the network through a historic transition. Walden’s situation is more complicated. She was considered a lead candidate for the top job at Amazon Studios but withdrew from contention in January. Sources close to the exec say that she was concerned about leaving Fox on short notice at a moment of upheaval.

Speculation about Walden’s ultimate role — perhaps at Disney, perhaps at Fox, perhaps elsewhere — has varied widely. Now, with weeks remaining on their Fox contracts, Walden and Newman are close to signing a one-year extension that would keep them in place until the closure of the Disney deal is in sight. The extension would allow them to exit should the deal be completed. Rice’s future, either with Disney or with Fox, is also undetermined.

Speaking on a conference call May 9 after the release of the company’s quarterly earning report, 21st Century Fox executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch said that planning for the new leadership structure “is well under way,” but offered no specifics.

Yet the pending Disney acquisition has already had an impact on the creative relationships that Walden and Newman so value. When “Glee” and “American Horror Story” executive producer Ryan Murphy left 20th TV for Netflix in February, he did so after expressing public solicitude over the idea of working for Disney. Netflix is pursuing other key Fox creators, such as Seth MacFarlane and Steve Levitan, whose 20th TV contracts are set to expire in the next year. “Empire” creator Lee Daniels, however, has opted to stay at the studio, signing a new deal earlier this month.

“All the stuff they’re selling to Disney is not going to be there to hide the weakness in Fox Broadcasting.”
Analyst Laura Martin

In the broader creative community, most have adopted a wait-and-see approach to FBC’s future iteration. Multiple TV lit agents who spoke with Variety say that the Disney deal has not had an effect on this development season. Some express cautious optimism that Fox could become an active buyer for creators based at Warner Bros. and Sony. Walden and Newman have had preliminary discussions with rival studios about how those companies might supply programming to the network, and plan to have more in-depth conversations after upfronts.

But the volume of entertainment programming FBC seeks may continue to fall, as Fox’s live-sports ambitions have yet to be sated. The company is competing for television rights to WWE, which has for years been central to the viability of the NBCUniversal cable channel USA. At the core of Fox’s pitch to Vince McMahon’s pro wrestling juggernaut is a potential move of flagship show “Monday Night Raw” to broadcast.

Early reports suggested that Fox would pursue WWE only if it lost UFC, whose rights it has held since 2011 and which is also being courted by NBC-Universal. But sources with knowledge of both negotiations indicated that Fox covets WWE regardless of where the WME-owned mixed martial arts league’s linear-TV package lands.

NBCUniversal’s WWE contract expires in September 2019. If Fox scoops up the grappling circuit, FBC could head into 2019-20 selling a fall schedule with two nights a week devoted entirely to sports and a third — Sunday — boasting a primetime designed to draft off an NFL lead-in. “Raw,” which airs year-round, would take more than 100 primetime hours off the table.

A sports-heavy lineup delivers obvious benefits. The NFL is television’s largest driver of live viewing and will provide FBC with a formidable platform to promote its other programming. USA’s WWE telecasts consistently reign as cable’s highest-rated regular programs in the 18-49 demo and outperform many broadcast offerings.

But it’s not all upside.

“Something like WWE could make the network younger, if less attractive to advertisers on that night,” says Katz Media Group’s Stacey Lynn Schulman, who adds that many brands are averse to being associated with WWE’s content. “It’s not on the spectrum of ‘Jerry Springer,’ but it’s not P&G friendly. It’s going to limit their ad list.”

For affiliates, sports could be a boon, albeit a pricey one. “The affiliates will be glad to have content that’s live, but it’s going to depend on what the cost is and how that impacts their financial structure,” Schulman says. An FBC with a younger audience makeup could also have a negative effect on affiliates’ evening newscasts, which rely on tune-in from older viewers.

The departure of an in-house studio producing shows that would premiere on FBC before traveling to syndication, streaming and international markets to make big piles of money would remove an incentive for keeping a robust entertainment-programming presence.

That incentive doesn’t have to go away forever. Many in the creative community speculate that, after a deal with Disney closes, Fox will launch a new television studio.

Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch is positioning New Fox to lean more heavily on news and sports.
Billy Farrell/BFAnyc.com/REX/Shu

“The conventional wisdom is that Fox is not going to take too much time to reload and generate their version of an in-house studio,” one high-ranking agency source says. “They’re going to want to do it all over again.”

Fox executives have avoided addressing the possibility publicly, but inside the company there is some enthusiasm for the challenge of building a studio from scratch or acquiring a production company and scaling it up. A third option, buying a major studio such as Sony Pictures, appears less likely but still possible.

With or without a studio arm, Fox will need FBC’s performance to improve. The network is poised to finish the season tied with ABC for third in the 18-49 demo, with an average 1.5 Nielsen live-plus-same-day rating. Broadcast television, including local stations, would account for 26% of the new 21st Century Fox’s earnings in 2020, according to a January estimate by analyst Michael Nathanson.

If 21st Century Fox becomes a three-legged stool held up by Fox Sports, Fox News and Fox Broadcasting and its affiliates, “it becomes much more important that the network fix the ratings,” says Needham analyst Laura Martin. “All the stuff they’re selling to Disney, which is $66 billion in value, is not going to be there to hide the weakness in Fox Broadcasting.” A significant chunk of the new company’s earnings momentum will depend on its owned and operated local stations, whose fortunes will rise and fall with FBC’s. With marginal cable channels such as Nat Geo Wild gone from its portfolio, Fox will likely be able to demand greater retransmission fees for its stations. With the acquisition on May 9 of seven affiliates — five of them in NFL markets — from Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media, Fox is leaning further into its station-group business in preparation for a future dramatically different from the present.

Whether his buyer is Disney, Comcast or another player, the 87-year-old elder Murdoch will be entering his final stage of media moguldom with a lean company focused on news, sports and a broadcast network that could operate like no other.

For whoever ends up running that network, the next few years will be anything but business as usual.

Brent Lang contributed to this report.