When its parent company struck a deal in January for the TV rights to “Thursday Night Football,” Fox Broadcasting’s fortune was set to improve. The NFL is the undisputed champion driver of live television ratings — an increasingly valuable commodity in a world of delayed and digital viewing. Fox paid handsomely for the rights, spending $660 million per year for five seasons. In return, it got the ratings lift the network needed. Season to date, Fox is up 38% from where it was last year in the 18-49 demo, according to Nielsen most-current ratings.
But Fox’s hot ratings start is more complex than a simple infusion of NFL viewership on Thursday nights. With sports numbers excluded, Fox was the only network in the second week of the season to show no declines from week one, posting a 1.7 in the demo, finishing above CBS and ABC, and placing just one tenth of a point behind NBC. The implication is that, so far, Fox’s entertainment programming strategy — built with football in mind — has yielded success.
“This isn’t all due to the ratings of ‘Thursday Night Football,’ which by the way were fantastic,” says Gary Newman, co-chairman of Fox Television Group. “But we are benefiting from the promotional platform of Thursday significantly helping our Friday. And I think a big part of the strategy is how do we use our own unique assets to create stability and strength in our network. We’re pleased that the levers we’ve pulled this fall are working and we’re pretty grateful for it.”
Nowhere was that more evident than last month during the first week of the 2018-19 Nielsen season. That Fox delivered its highest rated premiere week in three years comes as no surprise, given the anticipated “Thursday Night Football” bump. But the network showed strength throughout the week, finishing first among broadcasters on three consecutive nights — Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday —for the first time in its history during a premiere week.
Wednesday has for five seasons been the bulwark of Fox’s schedule, anchored by “Empire.” The music drama is still one of the network’s biggest current scripted hit, despite some ratings attrition, and has worked well in concert with third-season companion series “Star,” which so far this season has been able to retain a good chunk of its “Empire” lead in.
But, in addition to Thursday, Friday is where the network has made headway. By reviving Tim Allen comedy “Last Man Standing” — produced by 20th Century Fox Television and canceled by ABC a year ago — FBC drew a new audience of viewers loyal to Allen’s traditional brand of television comedy (and conservative personal politics). The season premiere drew 12.4 million viewers in delayed viewing, providing a muscular lead-in to new comedy “The Cool Kids,” set in a retirement home, and veteran unscripted offering “Hell’s Kitchen.”
“We saw real opportunity on Friday night to improve what we had been doing, and that sort of coincided with our continuing interest in trying to find a way to bring ‘Last Man Standing’ back, which we thought had been canceled while the show was still in its prime,” Newman said. “We think the results were just pretty fantastic.”
Fox used the “Thursday Night Football” platform to heavily promote its new Friday-night lineup — which Newman says is built to appeal to the same, “more age-diverse” audience that is tuning in for NFL action. He also points to the ratings stability delivered by the network’s second-year dramas earlier in the week, particularly procedurals “The Resident” and “9-1-1.” A shift toward procedurals in recent years, he says, has been intentional, given viewers more entry points into the network’s programming. “They can miss an episode, miss a few episodes, then come back and join the show and not feel like it’s too late,” Newman says. “And that strategy has worked pretty well for us.”
The welcome ratings news comes at a time of transition for Fox, as the network prepares to be separated from the Fox assets that will head to Disney in a pending mega-deal between the two companies. Walden, Newman’s longtime executive counterpart, will head to Disney to lead television-studio operations there as well as networks ABC and Freeform. Speculation about Newman has centered around a leadership role at so-called New Fox, but the exec declined to speak for this story about his future.
Instead, he is focusing on the present.
“We really feel like we hade a great start,” he says.