NAB 2016: Fox Co-Chiefs Walden, Newman Say ‘Empire’ Breeds Stability

Complete Coverage: NAB Show 2016

Fox coCEOs and chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman said the Empirephenomenon has been a blessing, but the company’s mission is to keep nurturing it so it becomes a building block for other hits.

Forecasting next month’s upfront presentation, Walden said the show would remain in its Wednesday home, and the schedule would feature other “recognizable IP” like a new spin on 24 and a reboot of Prison Break would provide welcome consistency. “We’re going to have the most stable schedule we’ve had in many years,” she said. “Having been at the studio for so long and having seen networks that change too much and others who respect their audience and leave things in place.”

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The network has boosted development by 30%, she added, aiming to address the exit of American Idol and the need to keep the slate fresh.

The session blended industry talk with production scoop from executive producer Ilene Chaiken by the show’s 22-year-old discovery, Bryshere “Yazz” Gray, who plays Hakeem Lyon on the show. (In a welcome departure from NAB panel norms, Gray led the crowd in a brief call-and-response rendition of show anthem “Drip Drop.”)

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In terms of episode orders and limited runs, areas where Fox has been actively experimenting in recent years, Newman said nothing is off the table.

“One thing the audience has spoken loudly about is that they’re not interested in seeing repeats on our air,” Newman said. “They’re not really that interested in waiting a week or two for pre-emptions to come back to the original run. So this year we made an effort to give people a run of original episodes and we found that that has worked.”

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The approach can boost marketing spending, he noted, but added, “It’s just a reality of television. The cable and digital models have gotten people interested in digesting shows in smaller bites.”

Newman said running both the studio and the network in the current climate “has really complicated our business.” One core reason for that is the long-held notion of “keeping series scarce [in non-linear platforms] so they can later be monetized has just completely collapsed.”

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Creatively, the split season proved a tonic, Chaiken said. The elements of the show, especially the incorporation of music into the storyline, means that “18 episodes are like 22 of another show.” The split schedule for 2015-16, which created two cable-esque mini-seasons, offered some relief. “It was a really smart schedule and we were grateful for it,” she said. “It allowed us to be as good as we were capable of being” and also “reboot” the show midway through to focus more on the Lyon family.

Like its broadcast peers, Fox faces a “jigsaw puzzle” of cultivating audiences with originals, given the outsize presence of live events, Newman said. Fox, for example, has the Super Bowl next February. Newman said there is an internal debate about how to schedule Empire or other shows around an early February break.

Walden ruled out Empire as a possibility for the coveted post-Super Bowl slot, which will be announced at the upfront.

Moderator Michael Schneider, an editor with Indiewire and Variety, noted that Empire creator Lee Daniels has said that a spinoff of the show is inevitable. “He has said that,” Walden said flatly.

When Schneider followed a long pause with a nudge to the panel, Chaiken finally put in, “Our focus is on making the show we have.” The attention is now on Season 3 – “Maybe if we get it under wraps, we’ll start talking” about a potential spinoff.

Chaiken added, “When you see the finale for Season 2, you’ll know a lot about the direction of Season 3.” Asked how he would want his character to evolve, Gray said writers could make him “a little bit more likable. But I like being a villain. It’s fun. … He’s like a lovable villain.”