Executives at ABC, CBS and NBC wait every year for ratings death star American Idol to finally slow down. But this year, even Fox's rivals probably wouldn't mind Idol coming back strong.
That's because with the possible exception of CBS, network television in general had yet another floundering fall and the business needs some good news.
Enter Randy, Paula, Simon and their new friend Kara, who will give viewers a reason to watch—live and not on the DVR. Everyone hopes that brings a halo effect not just to Fox, but to all of broadcast TV.
And Fox itself could use the help after another typically lackluster fall. Peter Liguori, chairman of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting and a lifelong New York Mets fan, knows that all the blame can't be put solely on the ratings-repelling Tampa Bay Rays. Case in point: Fringe, the heavily promoted J.J. Abrams drama, which premiered to middling numbers.
Liguori is hopeful that the return of Idol, which premieres its eighth season on Jan. 13, and 24, which has been off the air for two years, will energize the network and remind viewers why broadcast television still matters. The network will also try to find some much-needed new blood in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse and Lie to Me, starring Tim Roth as an investigator who doubles as a human lie detector.
In a wide-ranging talk with B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie, Liguori discusses what Jeff Zucker's 10 p.m. gamble says about NBC and broadcast TV in general, why CBS's lack of creative risks makes sense, and why he'd rather be a New York tabloid headline writer than the head of the No. 1 network. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Jeff Zucker says the network TV model is broken. Les Moonves says it's working just fine. Who's right?
I feel that we've got to look for the long term and play for the long term, which currently recognizes the economic conditions that we're in but also recognizes the fact that great creativity and great content conquer all. That is what fortifies your network and fortifies your bottom line. I think it's extraordinarily dangerous in these times to paint with a roller. We've got to be disciplined with our shots. And we've got to mostly work in partnership with our studios and our talent, and the agencies. I think it's a time when everyone needs to be a little more reasonable with their expectations.
Has the financial contraction manifested itself in development?
I don't think we are specifically cutting back on development per se. We are being more disciplined in not just saying, “Oh, it's worth a shot.” If you look at our development slate, there are fewer projects. But the percentage of projects that have a chance to make it to pilot and the air is higher.
Because you're cutting out some of the fat…
I can't say that we do it with great glee, because the history of this crazy business is a lot of times the project that's No. 40 on your development list winds up being the No. 1 hit on TV. But we as executives get paid to try to hedge the bets of shows, and I think we're going for stuff that we believe in more and are working to put a more concentrated effort and focus behind them.
After a fall season during which almost every network was down from a year earlier, how concerned are you about viewership levels in general?
We are concerned about viewership levels. There's no doubt we are in a specific period of time where there is a little bit of a perfect storm brewing. Even though we noticed across all the broadcast networks that viewership was down 10%, a lot of that did migrate to DVRs.
That is really the big economic challenge for us; once we do have the good fortune of having a hit, how do we make sure on every level we're getting compensated for that viewer?
NBC has basically admitted it can no longer produce a full lineup of original programming. Does that hurt the reputation of broadcast television?
I think it hurts the reputation of NBC more than it hurts the reputation of broadcast television. I think if we were all following suit, that would be a bigger statement. I believe they've done something that is somewhat short-term in thinking. Jay Leno is a very predictable bottom line generator. They have forgone their truly classic 10 o'clock history. A 10 o'clock that bred the Homicides, and ERs and L.A. Laws of the world. Jeff knows exactly what Jay is going to bring to NBC's bottom line, and he's forgoing the creative risk of potentially having a House or two at 10 o'clock. We both know enough about the financials of the business to be able to say that one or two Houses at 10 o'clock certainly does a lot for the overall financials. They're forgoing that. A big hit, the ability to sell that in syndication, the DVDs, the licensing, the merchandising, not to mention the fact that they're forgoing the opportunity to take that 10 o'clock hit, move it to 9 and potentially breed another hit out of it.
So I think it's a little bit of a cynical view toward the creative community, and somewhat short term. But again, if I'm just looking at it from a “what can you do for me now?” basis, it's hard to fault them. But I don't think it's a positive for NBC's view of the creative community and the opportunities for growth.
I was surprised that CBS did so well this fall. They launched a new show, The Mentalist, that is right in their DNA after trying, and failing, to experiment with edgier fare last season.
I've got to applaud Nina [Tassler] and Nancy [Tellem] and Les [Moonves] on that. I think when you look at the lineup, they went back to the future, so to speak, and stuck with their knitting. The environment right now is people do want comfort food. I think they are serving it up in big, heaping, warm portions. No one is going to sit back and overly applaud them for taking creative risks. But creative risks, I think in their mind, it might not be the time. But they've also done a good job with their comedies.
What has you most concerned about the business right now?
What concerns me most is creativity. Every day, we walk into these offices against the hope that that comedy writer with a unique point of view comes in, and that drama writer who is truly inspired walks in with a unique concept. That is something that energizes everyone in this office. I'm a little concerned about what is going on creatively. I want to make sure that broadcast is a place where people take risks and take shots. I can sit back and applaud CBS' performance on a numbers basis. On a creative basis, I sit back and say we cannot homogenize broadcast. I can look at NBC and applaud them for a short-term financial move, but from a creative standpoint it worries me that there are writers who are seeing less opportunity to put on groundbreaking programming.
How do you think the fall went for your network? Is there anything you would have done differently?
I'm not pleased with our fall. But there's no decision I would second-guess. There's no pilot that we didn't bring to series that I wish we did. There's no show that we put on that I didn't think was worth a shot. I refuse to accept that there's this notion of a Fox fall. I think, frankly, with a little bit of luck here or a little bit of luck there or if we didn't schedule for the long term, I don't think we would have been in fourth. I think we would have been in third or even second place. We're always one really good World Series from that not happening.
Yeah, you didn't get much help from the Rays.
With all due respect to the Tampa Bay Rays, they're a great baseball team. But they did not exactly help me on the ratings front.
What about Fringe? It didn't do as well as lot of people were hoping.
It is the No. 1 18-49 new show in television. Though I clearly would like to see that show be a 5 rated show, I think we all have to recognize the difficulties of launching shows in this past fall's environment.
Is it a risk to add a fourth judge on American Idol?
I think it's a risk. I wouldn't categorize it as a big risk. A show challenging itself is always a good thing.
24 has been off the air for two years. Are you concerned that viewers will not return?
You have to be concerned when a show is off the air for a couple of years. That's one of the reasons why we did [the prequel movie] Redemption, to get people reacquainted with what Jack has been doing for the past couple of years, to set up the season a little bit, though clearly you didn't have to see Redemption to get up to speed for this season.
Lie to Me centers on a man with an uncanny B.S. meter—sort of like The Mentalist. It seems like they could have used these two guys on the SEC a while back.
It seems like they could have used someone on the SEC who wasn't looking for a big job on Wall Street. I do think there's a difference between the two characters. [Lie to Me creator] Sam Baum crafted a character for Tim [Roth] who is based on fact, who is based on a real-life scientist, which is something that the show capitalizes on. I think there's a huge play-along factor with Lie to Me because we're presenting something that really is based on science. The show winds up being quite different from The Mentalist, which is just based on the fantasy of having the ability to observe.
Is Glee, Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy's new drama about a high school glee club, as good as we are hearing?
It's pretty good. It's pretty Ryan. I always sit in awe and admiration of his creativity and how he views the world, and this is pretty much Ryan in his wheelhouse. I would say he's prone to a little bit of vanity, and that's where he wrote from. Ryan was also in glee club when he was in high school. It was a place where he very much found himself. He has a real point of view on what life is like in high school and what it's like to be a teenager.
Is Dollhouse as bad as we are hearing?
Joss Whedon has an unbelievably loyal fan base, and he really knows how to write to that fan base. I expect that they're going to be there. They're going to enjoy his show. One of the things about airing on Friday night, a show is not expected to have those boffo ratings.
So you're not burying him in the Friday graveyard?
No, I'm not burying him in the Friday graveyard. I'm giving him a little bit of a reprieve by being on Friday.
How is the first-quarter ad market looking?
The jury's out, and we all recognize that there are challenges ahead of us. We can't expect that financial [services] advertising is going to be there. Clearly there is a vacuum because political ads are not going to be there. At this specific point, [ad sales chief] Jon [Nesvig] is writing some scatter.
Fortunately, we have a number of integrated long-term deals with our advertisers. If you look at Idol, there's still Ford, there's still Coke. Fortunately, we're shielded from some of the month-to-month volatility that's out there. Right now, broadcast still is the place that advertisers continue to turn to get the greatest breadth of audience.
How is the setup with Kevin Reilly going? Is there enough for you both to do every day?
Believe it or not, yes. We've always worked well together. Kevin knows how to manage me, manage up. I know how to work with Kevin. We don't step on each other's toes. I'm of greatest utility to Kevin by having a little bit of an arm's distance from our shows, from our development. Kevin knows when something should come to me and in what form, and with a clearer head and a bit more objectivity I'm able to work with him. We do want Fox to be No. 1. We do want great shows. But more importantly, when it's done, we want to go home to screaming kids and households and homework. We do have common goals.
Does Leno no longer being in the 11:30 time slot make you any more interested in getting into the late-night daypart?
We're always interested in expanding into new dayparts. But our approach will be a more measured approach. I don't think you can go blasting into 11:30 with a new piece of talent. From our standpoint, we're willing to experiment on Saturday night, to breed a late-night show that can find its footing and get exposure and then potentially move on to five nights a week in strip.
Would Spike Feresten be that person?
His show's gotten increasingly better every year. He's going to be doing six one-hours for us in the first quarter, and I think that's going to be a real opportunity. But I think it's very difficult to blast your way into that time slot.
How challenging would it be to get something cleared across the affiliate stations?
A bit of a challenge, especially since we have many affiliates that have 90 minutes of news and it's their most profitable time period. It would have to be someone who is undeniable.
What was your reaction to losing the BCS?
I think it's something that the whole industry should be looking at. At some point, these leagues should be looking at what happens to their ratings when they go to ESPN. The fact that they're promoted on a sports channel that is dedicated to rabid sports fans is ultimately not the best thing, in my opinion, for the leagues. When you have a broadcaster promoting your sport, you're getting exposed to younger people, women. I think that's something that's good for your long-term health.
Which job is more fun right now—running the No. 1 network or being a New York tabloid headline writer when the Mets just signed a pitcher named Putz?
[Laughing] Definitely the latter. It has to be. The Mets COO is a friend of mine, and I sent him an e-mail saying when you present his jersey given the fact that he's moved from Seattle to New York, I suggest putting J.J. above his number and not Putz. But a very good question, maybe the best question I've gotten.
What is the future of the Remote-Free TV strategy? How little does scheduling matter these days? More with Liguori only at www.broadcastingcable.com.
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