Fox’s Michael Thorn on the End of Pilots, ’Animal Control’ Expectations and Whether a Third ‘9-1-1’ Is in the Works

Michael Thorn, 'Animal Control'

As networks across the industry pull back on the number of series pilots they order, Fox is taking it one step further: They’ve decided to completely get out of the live-action pilot business.

The network launches its only new live-action comedy of the season, “Animal Control,” on Thursday, and Fox Entertainment’s scripted president Michael Thorn says that show’s development is a case study in how series will be ordered moving forward at the network. Instead of a pilot, Fox commissioned multiple scripts in order to test the viability of the sitcom. “Script-to-series,” which has been a staple at several cable networks for years, will now be the standard for Fox as well.

“On the live action side, we’re out of the pilot business,” Thorn tells Variety. “What we’ve found is that pilots were not a great predictor of success. Pilots that were high testing and that we all loved didn’t necessarily result in hit series. And they clearly do not work in the business model. We decided that it was a flawed process. So why keep doing it? Why not evolve?”

Thorn says that Fox will continue to order pilot presentations on the animated side, as “characters and storytelling and style come alive in a way that only seeing some kind of animated test allows you to see.” But in the case of a live action show like “Animal Control,” Thorn says he was able to secure Joel McHale as star of the comedy after being able to show him multiple scripts.

“He could really see with confidence where his character was going and understand the unique tone of this series,” Thorn says. “It was because it was script to series. And we found with our other shows that we’ve been able to get better casting with that model.”

The new anthology series “Accused,” from Howard Gordon, was another example: “You needed to see a couple scripts to really see the variety of stories that Howard wanted to tell. When we shared three scripts around the company, you could see the different types of storytelling.”

Thorn says the script-to-series model is still a work in progress, “but we like it, and our creators seem to like it so far. I know the other networks really cut back on pilots as well. I really don’t see us doing them ever again.”

“Animal Control” is also fully owned and produced by Fox through its Fox Entertainment Studios shingle – making it the network’s first in-house comedy since it separated from the now Disney-owned 20th Television. (Fox’s first in-house drama, “Monarch,” launched but was quickly canceled earlier this season.)

“It’s interesting time in the media business right now where there seems to be some contracting and so with our studio aspirations we’re very strategically and deliberately focused on calculated growth,” Thorn says. “We also have to be prepared to take the right bets. ‘Animal Control’ was certainly one of them. The benefits are obvious where it gives us greater control of our programming, our business. It allows us to track the kind of writers that we continue to hope to be in business. We’re nimble, and our goal is not to recreate what we used to have. And so, as we’re slowly growing, the risk is, are we ready? We believe we are, but it’s a one show at a time strategy.”

Part of that strategy comes with making what Fox calls “broadcast direct” deals. That term, which the network coined, means signing up producers in non-exclusive pacts in order to create shows for Fox in the script-to-series mold, but still allow them to produce for other platforms as well. Thorn announced Thursday that “Life in Pieces” creator Justin Adler is on board to develop a comedy for the network, and earlier this week revealed a similar deal with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and his company. Others who have signed “broadcast direct” deals include Rodney Rothman and Adam Rosenberg, to develop animated fare; as well as producers Carol Mendelsohn and Julie Weitz, and McG. Dan Harmon’s upcoming “Krapopolis” also comes out of such a deal.

Fox hasn’t yet announced a return for new seasons of “Welcome to Flatch” or “Call Me Kat,” but Thorn points to the patience the network has had in renewing those shows.

“We’re hoping ‘Animal Control’ will propel Fox back to the forefront of the comedy renaissance that’s currently underway,” he says. “We chose this season to launch one new show, obviously with ‘Animal Control’ but to return two other shows that we think have promise with ‘Welcome to Flatch’ and ‘Call Me Kat.’ Our strategy there was to nurture those shows and be patient while trying to allow them to find an audience that hopefully comes back and watches them live on our air. And so, we’re being very deliberate about our comedy focus.

“We’re on the hunt for that next comedy that truly defines us both from a creative standpoint and a ratings standpoint,” he adds. “We believe it’s going to be ‘Animal Control.’ We’ll find out soon over the next couple months as we see how the show connects with the audience. And then we’ll start to slowly build a slate. We would love to have a night that’s all comedy. But in order to do that, I think we need a series that is the foundation of that night.”

Thorn says it’s still too soon to determine whether “Flatch,” “Kat” or veteran drama “The Resident” will be back next season. Meanwhile, here are a few more tidbits from our chat with Thorn.

What’s the strategy and expectation for “Animal Control” given Fox’s ownership?

We really try to deliver huge launches. And we’re going for it with this show. I feel like there’s kind of a moment right now where unique character-driven, visceral storytelling happens to be hitting a moment with animals. We’ve got our series ‘Animal Control,’ you’ve got ‘Cocaine Bear’ coming out. There’s the Will Forte and Will Ferrell movie ‘Strays.’ There’s something in the air right now where people are connecting with animal-driven storytelling in a way that I think will hopefully be surprising.

As an independent network, what are the challenges that come with doing something in-house?

We hope to return ‘Animal Control’ with another season. And then hopefully, shortly after that, we’ll be able to hopefully have our second Fox-owned drama that we can really get behind and give a huge launch like ‘Animal Control.’ [Fox Entertainment CEO] Rob Wade and I talk a lot about not growing too quickly, and in really taking your time to get it right. We’re off to a pretty good start in 2023 we think with the success of ‘Accused’ being our most watched show in two years. [Alternative head] Allison Wallach and her team having the number one new unscripted show with ‘Special Forces’ and of course, what a night [after the Super Bowl] for ‘Next Level Chef.’”

What are the lessons learned from “Monarch,” your first in-house production, not making it?

It was a big swing with some really talented creators, a great cast with incredible music, and unfortunately, that one missed. But we’re a company that’s going to continue to take calculated risks and big creative swings. That’s the DNA of our company. I will tell you one of the lessons that this isn’t tied necessarily to ‘Monarch,’ this is just lessons we’re learning… The linear model is a little bit different than some of the other platforms that we compete with. And so, over the past couple years we’ve really looked at while we’re building great creative series, how do we build a business around these shows? We’re not the only ones who are having these conversations. But while we’re focused on great creative, we’re also looking at cost-effective models. So that in the event a show doesn’t have a huge launch, but it does have creative momentum and it’s a show that we believe in, we can nurture it. As we nurture our shows, we allow them to find an audience. And if you support them, like our network does, and you do it with a model that allows these shows to find a business around them, we think we can have a great recipe. And so, for our studio, that is one of our goals. Great creative, but with models that speak to the business that we’re in today.

Now that “Welcome to Flatch” has finished its season, and I know “Call Me Kat” is still on the air but any talk of pickups yet for those shows?

We really like both series and Lionsgate and Warner Bros., respectively, are great partners. We love ‘Welcome to Flatch,’ the audience that that watches it loves the show and the characters. And our goal is to try to get more people in the tent. I think a show like that takes time. We were patient giving it a second season and so now we’re talking about the possibility of a third. And Mayim Bialik is obviously fantastic in ‘Call Me Kat.’ She continues to deliver and so we’ll see how ‘Animal Control’ does. We’ll see where ‘Call Me Kat’ finishes. And then we’ll have some real conversations about where we go next and comedy in the late spring.

Looking toward May, how many series orders might you be looking at? Is there an area you’re focused on?

As we head into the next couple months, we’re going to talk a lot about the shows we have on the air, and how we bring those back in a way where even a second season show feels nascent to us in this marketplace. How do we ensure that they go from a second season to a fifth season. That kind of strategy paid off with ‘The Cleaning Lady’ ordering a third season. And then of course we start to look at, what’s missing in the marketplace, where can we break out? We have a couple of very exciting projects. We have a drama from Mark Cherry, we have a project with David Ayer based on the movie ‘End of Watch’ and there are a handful of others that we’re tracking. We have a drama with Sony from Barbie Kligman and Hank Steinberg called ‘Doc,’ a medical drama that we’re really high on that’s based on an incredibly successful Italian series. And then, our ordering pattern is not really built around the upfronts. The upfronts remain an important part of our process and our relationship with advertisers are paramount to us. But you’ll see us order a series or two or three before upfront. Just like last year, we came out of the upfronts and we ordered ‘Animal Control.’ We really practice what we preach when it comes to year-round development and programming.

You’re also not necessarily doing the traditional 22-episode orders anymore on series like “The Cleaning Lady.”

‘The Cleaning Lady’ is a great example of a show that it needs to feel urgent and eventized. That’s a show that we look at as 12 episodes a season. Then shows like the ‘9-1-1’s, ‘The Resident,’ ‘Alert’ in success, these shows are built to be 18 to 22 episodes. ‘The Cleaning Lady’ should not be a 22 episodes-a-year show. And then ‘Accused,’ as an anthology series, on one hand, you would think it would be easy to make it 22 episodes, because it’s in the crime genre. But on the other hand, Howard’s goal is to make every episode feel like a culture piercing event. And when the number gets to be too high, it gets harder to really connect on a deeper level. We run the gamut.

Anything to report on “The Resident”?

Nothing to report. Other than we love the show. I’m so proud to have been a part of that show since the beginning. It’s a show that our network and our audience love. It’s had a great six season run. Amy Holden Jones does a fantastic job on that, and we love the cast.

How about a third edition of “9-1-1”?

We talk about it all the time. And it’s obviously a flagship franchise for us. And no surprise, we talk about the possibilities around that show constantly.

It feels like all procedurals come in threes these days.

I think part of it is the other networks have an 8, 9 and 10 o’clock time period. And obviously ours is a two-hour block. But one of the great things about Ryan and Tim and Brad is they’re incredibly ambitious storytellers and we know they have a world vision for this franchise that can absolutely expand beyond two.