The Five Spot: Stephen Brown EVP, Programming and Development, Fox Television Stations

Stephen Brown
The pandemic has posed challenges for Fox first-run development chief Stephen Brown. (Image credit: Fox Television Stations)

Like everything else, syndication is changing due to the pandemic and the flight to streaming, but local TV stations’ need for programming remains. Filling that need for the Fox Television Stations, which operate as duopolies in many large markets, is the job of Stephen Brown, executive VP of programming and development at the station group. He chatted with Multichannel News contributor Paige Albiniak about how syndication has changed in the past year, and how he and his team are planning for the post-pandemic future. An edited transcript follows.

How has your job changed since the Disney acquisition in March 2019, which left Fox relatively stripped down? It’s shifted quite a bit, because 20th Television was the entity that sold our properties and now we self-sell. One of the side benefits of COVID is that all of our pitches now, instead of a team that had to travel around from market to market, are done virtually. With the pitch for Jay Leno and You Bet Your Life [premiering on TV stations around the country this fall], we got the groups on a Zoom call with Leno and the executive producers and pitched the show. We got through them in a couple of weeks. This Disney divestiture made us create our own entity, Fox First Run, and that has made us more efficient and effective. 

What does the business of syndication look like for Fox now that you no longer have your own studio and big studios, such as Warner Bros., seem to be reducing their plans to produce shows for syndication?  Even when we were at Twentieth Television, we were a separate entity that produced our own stuff. Our process has always been the same: We develop, we do run-throughs, we may do mini-pilots and we always do summer tests. Those summer tests inform us what we’re going to launch the following year.

Fox First Run is a hedge against the failure of other studios or distributors to produce. Our stations — and especially because we have duopolies in many of our markets — need product. If Warner Bros. or Disney or CBS or NBC or anybody else can’t fill those holes, we need to be able to produce for our stations. 

Why didn’t you do a test for You Bet Your LifeWe were in the process of putting together a test for it when COVID struck. We were fortunate in that it is a well-known format with a well-known host that didn’t require a summer test. But we remain 100% behind the strategy to test shows. I’m praying that COVID will be behind us enough to shoot in [a] studio by July or August. 

FTS just renewed three shows — 25 Words or Less, Divorce Court and Dish Nation — for two more years. To put it not that delicately, none of them are super high-rated. Why did you choose to renew them and how much does the ratings level matter to Fox as a business? The ratings continue to decline, but I think that you can find revenues through ancillary viewing, like Hulu, YouTube, etc., that can fill in some of the holes. As a producer, you think,   ‘I have to make up the money that I’m not getting from advertising for declining ratings while not killing the primary source of income, which are those ratings.’ So I’m always trying to hedge my bets. The smart thing for us is we have never been a studio that has had bloated budgets. We’ve always been very lean. 

You mentioned doing pitches via Zoom for TV stations. What else has COVID changed that you think won’t change back once the pandemic ends? One thing we stumbled on in COVID is that we used to have a live audience for Divorce Court and now we have a virtual audience of 30 or so fans. It’s worked so well that we’re not going back to a live audience. Being in the audience is now really a reward for being a superfan.

Bonus Five

What TV shows are you bingeing? Just finished The Undoing. LOVED The Great and Belgravia

All-time favorite TV shows? Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey

What books are on your bedside table/Kindle? Howard's End by E.M. Forster; The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers; and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Bucket-list travel destinations? New Zealand and Australia.

Last great memorable meal? Pace in Laurel Canyon the weekend everything shut down, with my son and best friends.

Favorite podcast? Pod Save America

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.