A Studio-Free Future Forces Fox to Rethink Scripted TV Strategy

Since Disney’s deal to acquire the bulk of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets — and leave Fox Broadcasting in the hands of the Murdoch family, divorced from the studio business that feeds it programming — Fox has been fighting the notion that the network will shift to a model dependent on sports, live events, and unscripted programming.

That fight continued Thursday at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, even amid signals that the shift is indeed occurring. “We’re definitely in the development business,” Dana Walden said Thursday during her executive session with fellow Fox Television Group co-CEO Gary Newman. “Our mix is going to remain as it’s been for the past decade.”

The reality, however, is that sports are already gobbling up huge chunks of Fox’s schedule. “Thursday Night Football,” which Fox acquired the rights to in January for $660 million per year, will take 11 nights of primetime programming off the table this fall. In June, Fox cut a deal with the WWE for “Smackdown” which will air year-round on Friday nights — more than 100 hours per year of primetime schedule.

Fox executives tout the halo effect that the NFL will have on its programming. And the ability to promote its new fall series in primetime to an NFL audience is indeed one any network would be glad to have.

But even as its available real estate for primetime programming shrinks, more and more of that real estate is being given to unscripted shows. On Thursday, Fox revealed series orders for three new unscripted programs: competition show “The Masked Singer” and game shows “Spin the Wheel” and “Mental Samurai.” “The Masked Singer” is slated to premiere at midseason, and “Spin the Wheel” and “Mental Samurai” begin shooting soon, meaning both or either could be available for midseason as well.

“Obviously we’re looking at all of them going into 2019, but exactly where, we’re not sure yet,” Fox alternative programming president Rob Wade told Variety Thursday.

Wade joined Fox in February of last year. Since then, he said, he has increased the unscripted development budget by 50%. In the year prior to Wade’s arrival, Fox made 12 unscripted development deals. This year so far it has done 30.

“The Masked Singer,” “Mental Samurai,” and “Spin the Wheel” point toward the unscripted strategy Fox has adopted under Wade — one focused on formats. “Purely from an economic point of view and from a rights point of view, formats make a lot of sense in unscripted these days,” he said. “You have the whole world to exploit with them. That’s where my strategy lies, not just in finding the next big show, but the next big format.”

But when asked if he was getting more schedule time to search for that unscripted hit, he declined to estimate whether unscripted would take up more hours on Fox this season than last.

“I think honestly the Fox network is at its best when it has a good variety of everything — sport, entertainment, scripted, unscripted,” he said, adding that increased hours on the schedule would come when a hit show demanded them.

Wade’s counterpart on the scripted side, entertainment president Michael Thorn, told Variety that looking ahead to development for 2019-20, he expects to order about six comedy pilots and six drama pilots — on par with what Fox ordered this past season. But he plans to narrow the pool of scripts from which those pilots are drawn. “Going into this season, I expect to buy probably half the amount of scripts that we have in the past.” He added, “We’re going to bet on the voices and the projects we believe in and support those and try to make the process as talent-friendly as possible so that each project we buy, the talent feels completely invested in.”

Walden, during the exec session, said that the goal for FBC is for half of its development this season to come from 20th, and half from outside studios. Thorn conceded that those projects will compete to enter a tighter schedule.

“The NFL will take 10 to 11 weeks of Thursday-night programming,” he said. “But there’s still so much opportunity….We will be more targeted.”

Fox is clear that its incentives for staying in the scripted business aren’t going away, even as it beefs up its sports and unscripted offerings. Although Fox will no longer own its existing programming or produce its own new programming once 20th becomes part of Disney, Walden said that the network will, as a matter of course, take an ownership stake in any new programs it licenses from outside studios.

Thorn, meanwhile, did not dismiss the idea that Fox could, after the Disney deal, start a new studio, though he said that no discussions have taken place. He did say, however, that Fox execs have talked about ways that they could cut deals directly with producers — engaging with creators at the development stage, then bringing in outside studios later in the process to help with financing, distribution, and production.

Such an effort would create “a very clean process with minimal layers” between the network and creators, Thorne said, adding, “That’s one of the things that we’re talking about to change the process.”

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