Listen: Why Fox Television Stations Embraced Trial and Error in Daytime

Frank Cicha, head of programming for Fox Television Stations, saw the future coming nearly a decade ago when Fox’s TV station group committed many millions to land syndication rights to “The Big Bang Theory” back in 2010.

Even then, it was clear that big hits on the scale of “Big Bang” were going to be few and far between. Cicha could sense that local TV stations would be outbid in a big way by cable networks for top primetime series. His theory was only reinforced a few years later when Netflix and other streaming platforms started vying for hot off-network properties.

On the latest episode of Variety podcast “Strictly Business,” Cicha outlines the strategy that Fox Television Stations has pursued in recent years to increase the volume of original daytime programming developed for the station group. Fox Television Stations frequently sets up test runs of prospective series in a handful of big markets to gauge viewer reaction, before the stations and producers spend upwards of $20 million on a national launch.

“We know that only one out of 20 go to year two or year three,” Cicha says. “We said, ‘let’s do 60 of them.’ The idea was that we need to do more and take more swings than ever.”

First-run syndicated programs have become more important to the group as the supply of top-shelf primetime fare is dwindling. At the same time, local broadcast TV stations are also struggling to draw big audiences in daytime as fragmentation and an ever-growing number of programming options takes its toll.

Fox Television Stations develops a host of material with in-house producers as well as outside distributors. Success stories from the test model include “The Wendy Williams Show,” from Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury, “The Real,” from Warner Bros.’ Telepictures, and Fox’s own “Dish Nation.” It took some time to persuade producers to agree to the test model. But the proof was in the pickups.

“Overall people started to see that it was better to take a look at more things and — Eureka — potentially lose less money by doing (tests) than really taking the giant swing” on a national launch, Cicha said.

Cicha also weighs in on the growth of the digital multicast network business for local TV stations, and on how life at Fox Corp. has changed since Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox.

The streamlining of Fox Corp. under the direction of CEO Lachlan Murdoch has “spurred a lot of collaboration and communication” that is easier to accomplish in a smaller company, he said. “Lachlan Murdoch is laser-focused on it being one company.”

Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment. A new episode debuts each Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

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