Fox’s Michael Thorn Talks Disney Deal’s Impact on Network, Development Priorities

Michael Thorn
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Michael Thorn was named entertainment president of Fox Broadcasting in August. Four months later, The Walt Disney Co. agreed to acquire the bulk of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets — a deal that would see 20th Century Fox Television, the studio where Thorn had been a longtime executive, move to Disney and the broadcast network stay in a slimmed-down, Rupert Murdoch-run Fox.

Word of the deal came in the middle of Thorn’s first development cycle as a buyer. But speaking to Variety Thursday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Thorn said that the Disney deal has had minimal impact on development — in part because it came on the cusp of the holiday break.

“We finished our buying season and we’re just starting to get in material,” Thorn said. “It’s been pretty much business as usual. The only thing we had to really do was reach out to the talent that we’re in business with and say, “We’re making pilots. We’re going to announce a fall schedule. If you have a show that’s premiering now, if it works, we’re going to bring back another season of it.'”

Fox on Thursday announced a renewal for freshman drama “The Gifted,” produced by 20th Century Fox Television and based on Marvel’s X-Men characters. Thorn pointed to the renewal as an indicator that the network is moving forward as it normally would.

“When we’re talking to the writers and producers we’re in business with, I think actions speak louder than words,” Thorn said. “So to me bringing back ‘The Gifted’ for another season I think is meaningful. There’s a multi-cam comedy we’re developing with Rob McElhenney and Rob Rosell where we hired casting directors to try to find the female lead. We’ve started talking to other producers about the directors for their pilots. Once you get back into the rhythm, people just want their pilots ordered.”

As development for 2018-19 progresses, Thorn has specific targets. “We really want to add another original animated show to that Sunday-night lineup,” he said. He also wants to add “a live-action family comedy that feels distinctly Fox.” On the drama side, he added, “I would love to find another signature character piece, whether it’s a soap or a franchise show. And I wouldn’t say we’re not going to add more genre to our network because we’re re-shooting a pilot we made last year called ‘The Passage’ based on the Justin Cronin novels. [Executive producer] Liz Heldens is a major talent. So we’re really obviously passionate about the project since we’re reshooting part of it.”

Executives at Disney and Fox anticipate that the merger will take 12-18 months to complete. If it passes muster, Fox will become the only broadcast network not affiliated with a studio.

Murdoch indicated after the deal was announced that he believes separating the network from the studio will benefit from the former, giving it flexibility to buy from a wide array of sellers at a time when its competitors are focused intensely on vertical integration.

“I received a few calls from the independent studios saying, ‘We’re your team now!'” Thorn said. “Literally within 24 hours of the announcement. They have great auspices that they have deals with as well. I think for the most part when you’re a buyer, whether you have a home team or not, you’re always looking at what are the best shows for us right now.”