There’s been no shortage of drama in the entertainment industry this year, from mega mergers, massive restructurings, sudden executive ousters and plummeting values for media giants on Wall Street. But from the perspective of a well connected, well funded and highly motivated producer with a track record like Seth MacFarlane, business has never been better.
“It seems to be as ripe a landscape as it’s ever been,” the “Family Guy” creator said Sunday during a wide-ranging Q&A with Erica Huggins, president of his Fuzzy Door procution banner, that was held Sunday as part of the two-day Produced By conference organized by the Producers Guild of America.
MacFarlane has carpe diem’ed the past half-dozen years of peak TV production to significantly expand the scope of Fuzzy Door, now based at Universal Content Productions. Huggins joined the company in 2018 after years on the feature side of Imagine Entertainment.
Huggins was recruited to help MacFarlane spread his wings, given that he prefers to devote himself primarily to one project at a time. “The purpose of bringing Erica on board was really to bolster what we do with someone who has a lot of experience with talent and can take the raw material, the foundation that we built and let it mushroom and expand.”
To that end, among the active series on Fuzzy Door’s roster, set to debut on Peacock in August, is “The End is Nye.” It’s a pitch-perfect example of a series that could only exist in the streaming era.
MacFarlane described the series from seasoned scribe Brannon Braga as having something of a “Law & Order” format, revolving around science and climate change instead of jurisprudence. Nye will go through a cinematically staged natural or man-made disaster in the first half of each episode and die. But in the second half, Nye is back to demonstrate how science, technology and green innovations will hopefully help mitigate or prevent such environmental crises in the future.
“The End is Nye” is also an example of MacFarlane choosing projects by his varied interests. “We look at what people are watching, what’s popular and we look at what isn’t on. What can’t you find that you wish you had in front of you,” said Huggins. “The freedom to be able to pick and choose has been amazing at Fuzzy Door.”
MacFarlane and Huggins said UCP has been a great partner, offering them flexibility to work within the NBCUniversal eco-system as well as to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities that are emerging in international production.
MacFarlane was pressed on how his experience as a producer changed over the past few years since he split from Fox after being aligned with the studio for three decades, since he was the 24-year-old wunderkind who launched “Family Guy” in January 1999.
But as the political climate began to change in the Obama and Trump years, MacFarlane became increasingly vocal about his discomfort over being affiliated with the same parent company as Fox News, given the extremist views embraced by some of its primetime opinion hosts. Eventually, he voted with feet, signing a mega-deal with Universal in January 2020.
Through “Family Guy” and “American Dad” and Hulu’s “The Orville,” MacFarlane still has plenty of business with 20th Television (now part of Disney) and the Murdoch-controlled Fox Corp., home of Fox Broadcasting Co., Fox News and Fox Sports.
“It’s an incredibly complicated relationship that I have with that company,” MacFarlane said of Fox Corp. ” There are people there, with whom I have great personal relationships. There are people that I like a lot. But it is a different company than it was when I started. It’s very difficult for me to reconcile exactly what my relationship is with that company right now. I, like many people, have a lot of objections to their practices.”
But the controversial decision to include Trump counselor Rudy Giuliani as a contestant on Fox’s hit entertainment reality show “The Masked Singer” felt like a lightning rod for MacFarlane — a line that was crossed. Giuliani was a key figure who pushed former President Donald Trump to contest the results of the 2020 election with no credible evidence of election fraud — a stance that would seem to disqualify him from mainstream TV, particularly after the disgrace of the riot in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Certainly the news division and the entertainment division operate relatively independently of each other. And that’s something that allowed a lot of us to sleep a little better,” MacFarlane said. “The situation with ‘The Masked Singer’ and Rudy Giuliani was distressing. That was the first indication for me that made me wonder if I should be questioning that.”
MacFarlane made a point of adding that during his many years on the Fox payroll, he’s never faced any pressure to soften his humor, even his politically charged barbs.
“The whole time I was there, no one ever tried to censor the show politically,” he said. “I was never censored and I was never pressured to project a different political outlook. And obviously, ‘Family Guy’ tends to be pretty left wing.”
MacFarlane also mused that there’s a need for a conservative-leaning news outlet that hews more centrist than the far-right trends fueled in the Trump era.
“In this day and age there really is an opening and a need for — God help me — a conservative news outlet that is rational. And that presents an opposing viewpoint in a way that is thoughtful, and that acknowledges science and acknowledges the reality of the world around us,” he said. “At one point, you could make the argument that Fox News was headed in that direction. They’ve really taken a right turn that is going someplace radically different.
“To me the ideal situation would be if they could course-correct and make a conscious moral decision to try and be that let that be their role going forward,” he said, adding. “I don’t think there’s a chance in hell but…”
Among other topics discussed during the hourlong conversation:
** “Ted”: Fuzzy Door is adapting MacFarlane’s comedy film franchise about a guy and his foul-mouthed talking teddy bear friend as a series for Peacock. The idea came from NBCUniversal, MacFarlane said. He didn’t think it was feasible to produce as a series because of the VFX required to render Ted. “To me, what’s always exciting is is doing something that has not been done before,” MacFarlane said. “I don’t know that there has been a television series in which a CGI character will have this level of realism and detail in rendering.” Huggins added that the company is using proprietary tools with green screen technology.
** “The Winds of War”: Fuzzy Door is in the early stages of developing a remake of the epic 1983 miniseries set against the backdrop of World War II. The project stems from MacFarlane’s love of history and Herman Wouk’s famed novels. The real history is better than any fiction and just as soapy. “It’s fed to you as if you’re watching ‘Dallas,’ ” MacFarlane said.
** Advice from the trenches: In the spirit of the Produced By event, Huggins offered some insight to attendees about the content marketplace and the neatly packaged pitches that generate the biggest responses from buyers. “They are looking for something that is transactional today. The more you package, the more you can put something together, the better off you’ll be,” she said.
(Pictured: Seth MacFarlane, Erica Huggins and Variety‘s Cynthia Littleton)