Fox TV Group Chief Gary Newman on His Future, Ryan Murphy’s Exit, ‘American Idol,’ and ‘Creepy’ O.J. Simpson Interview

Gary Newman
Stewart Cook/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

JERUSALEM — The future of Fox in light of the pending Disney acquisition may still be a question, but Fox Television Group chairman-CEO Gary Newman said he’s “optimistic” about what the deal means for the network and studio he currently runs, as well as his own job prospects.

“I’m very bullish about it. I look at that combination and think it’s going to be a powerful media company,” Newman told Variety ahead of his Q&A panel at the INTV Conference in Israel. “To be able to compete with these other companies like Netflix and Amazon and Apple who have incredible resources, it’s very challenging. The only way to be able to do that is you have to have scale.”

That hunger for scale, he said, is also what’s driving Comcast’s interest in pursuing the Fox assets, or at least the Sky satellite platform that Disney hopes will be part of its $52.4 billion acquisition of 20th Century Fox and other Fox assets including its 40% stake in Sky. “Fox was the jewel that was available around town,” Newman said. “It’s funny that no one really knew it was available.”

He acknowledged that the traditional TV business model is ever more challenged by streamers like Netflix, which are judged not on earnings but on growth. “We’re competing with different rules,” he said. “The question is who’s going to be nimble enough to find their position as a company and as individuals.”

And that impacts Fox’s ability to land and retain talent in overall deals, such as the megabucks pacts Netflix recently inked with Ryan Murphy, who had a long-term relationship as a producer with Fox, and Shonda Rhimes. “They may have an advantage in making those deals,” he said. “But I think the strength of a company like Fox is that we’ve always been talent-oriented. We’ve never been platform-oriented,” pointing to the studio’s track record of placing shows across many outlets, not just Fox.

While talent may be swayed by dollar signs, he said, “The next thing they’re looking at after how many zeroes on the check is, is this a home where I’m nurtured, is this a home where I can do my best work.”

Newman acknowledged that the corporate uncertainty played a role in Murphy’s exit. “I believe if we had made his deal six months earlier, we probably would have closed the deal with him,” he said, adding that they’re still going to be business with him given the seven series currently in the works. Still, he admitted that Netflix allows Murphy to play across different types of TV shows and movies, which was a compelling offer for the prolific producer.

That uncertainty has impacted his own future as well, which he said is still undecided. “We’ve had good conversations,” he said of both ABC and Fox. “I think there’s going to be great opportunity. The work that we’ve done speaks for itself,” pointing to their track record of launching new dramas this fall and midseason, including Murphy’s latest, the Fox EMT procedural “9-1-1.” “I think from a personal standpoint, whether it’s ABC or others, they’re going to look at the work we’ve done and think we can be helpful,” he said.

The coming Disney-Fox transaction has raised the prospect of Newman ending his 18-year professional partnership with Dana Walden. The two have headed the 20th Century Fox TV studio operation since 1999, and they added oversight of the Fox network in 2014. Newman acknowledged that a change may be afoot. “It would be unrealistic for us to not also look through the prism of what’s best for each of us, in terms of our own lives. [But] my hope is certainly we’ll continue to work together,” Newman said.

Newman also insisted that Sunday’s airing of the “O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession?” interview special wasn’t entirely a counter-programming move against the launch of “American Idol” in the same time slot on its new home at ABC. He said Fox had tried unsuccessfully to find the tapes of the interview that was shelved amid a public outcry in 2006. A new search was launched last fall when Simpsons was paroled after serving nine years in prison on an armed robbery conviction.

“We were truly stunned,” Newman said of the footage they found. “The interview was riveting. It’s compelling. It’s a little creepy and scary. We certainly never looked at it lightly. We thought there was almost historical importance to it.” All the revenue generated, he said, is being donated to domestic abuse charities.

“The fact that we were able to put it up against the premiere of ‘American Idol’ was certainly a benefit,” he said, noting that he didn’t watch the ABC reboot of the long-running Fox hit. “There’s a certain irony to it.”