Of all the industry’s tumult, the constant comings and goings, the daily disruption, there is one constant: Dana and Gary. Or maybe it’s Gary and Dana.
Either way, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, chairmen and CEOs of the Fox Television Group, have been a leadership team for 17-plus years, and are intent on keeping a good thing going. There aren’t many examples of duos successfully running massive organizations, media or other. Robert Daly and Terry Semel, former co-heads at Warner Bros. were one early influence on Walden-Newman. Newman suggests another dynamic duo.
“We definitely model ourselves after Abbott and Costello,” he quips.
Their success is no joke. After creating the exceedingly rare broadcast smash a few years back in Empire, they’re at it again with the fall’s breakout show This Is Us, which airs on NBC but is produced by Fox’s studio. While Fox has had its challenges in prime, the network is loaded for the mid-season as much as any network, and perhaps more. Musical drama Star hopes to draft off Empire’s success, scruffy comedy The Mick is off to a promising start, and Fox will use the Super Bowl to launch the spinoff 24: Legacy. That post-Bauer thriller, in turn, will help launch drama APB.
That’s just broadcast. On the cable side, the studio produces two of the most critically adored shows on TV. The new season of Homeland started up on Showtime Jan. 15, while FX’s The Americans kicks off season 5 on March 7.
Cultivating a hit is akin to unearthing a pristine diamond, but creators in the Fox family say Walden and Newman have a keen eye for a potential breakout, and throw their full heft behind it like few other network execs. Ilene Chaiken, showrunner on Empire, said many believe Empire was too unconventional to be a hit. It was too soapy, some critics said, or too black to catch on. It wasn’t easy to find examples of hit shows full of original musical numbers.
“Dana and Gary defied that. They believed what they saw and felt about the show, not what other people were saying,” says Chaiken. “It was the most impressive rollout of a series I’ve ever experienced.”
While Newman came from business affairs and Walden from programming, both are adept in all aspects of network and studio management. “For both of us, it was important from the beginning to feel that either of us could oversee any area of the organization alone,” says Walden. “We can cover so much territory together.”
Jay Sures, managing director at UTA, says “a deep level of mutual respect” is key to their success. “The pairing was perfect,” he says. “They’re both profoundly honest and unbelievably fair—just nice people.”
At this stage of their partnership, Walden and Newman could dispense not only management advice, but relationship tips too. Many in the industry marvel at how they never fail to put up a united front. “I can’t even imagine how many meals they’ve had together as a professional duo,” says Sures.
Even with a partner, running a network and a studio is grueling work. Walden unwinds by retreating to her ski house with her family, and attending her daughter’s soccer games. “I spend an unfortunate amount of time in really dusty places within an hour of Los Angeles,” she cracks.
Newman, for his part, ducks out to a second home outside of Santa Barbara with his wife, where they tend to a vineyard. Viticulture has put the television industry in perspective. “Mother Nature is unforgiving and completely out of your control,” he says. “Accepting that Mother Nature is pretty powerful gives you a good attitude when you deal with the fickleness of TV audiences.”
While some network brass is more about number crunching than creative, Walden and Newman are exceptionally plugged in to the stories and characters that populate the primetime of Fox and the studio’s buyers. “When I’m struggling [with a script], when I’m making a big decision, the best meeting I can have is to sit with them,” Chaiken says.
Amid all the mayhem in an industry that will soon feature 500 scripted shows, Walden and Newman keep their strategy pretty simple. Partner with the best storytellers and take “bold, original swings,” Newman says. “End up with great content,” he adds, “and the distribution will take care of itself.
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.