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MBPT Spotlight: Fox Plans ‘Idol’ Scale-Back, NBC Shifts ‘Blacklist’ and Buyers Give Thumbs-Up to Several New Series

Fox may be preparing for its eventual parting of the ways with onetime juggernaut American Idol by picking up a crop of 10 new series for the 2014-15 season, many of which media buyers praised after seeing trailers during the network’s upfront presentation on Monday.

Idol, which has slipped about 20% in viewership this season and almost 30% in the 18-49 demo rating, will be back next midseason, but Fox will air only about 37 hours of the singing competition series, compared to about 55 hours this season. Not returning this fall will be Fox’s other singing competition series The X Factor, which also aired two nights and three hours a week.

So Fox had a chance to get creative in its program development and it seems like the network, at least based on initial buyer impression, has scored some solid grades for most of its new offering.

“Fox looks like it is trying to connect with viewers on the next wave of programming, offering a varied assortment of shows,” said one media agency executive. Another added, “Most of the new Fox series look really solid. It’s evident they made a major investment in content. Even their new sitcom Mulaney looks interesting. They don’t need all of them to click, just a few successes can turn things around.”

And Fox certainly needs a viewership and ratings turnaround. As this season comes to a close, based on regularly-scheduled programming, Fox is averaging just north of 5 million viewers per night, down 19% over last season, and a 1.6 18-49 demo rating, down 27%.

But if buyers’ first impressions are correct, the network could be on the road to recovery.

Among the new Fox dramas that impressed buyers were Gracepoint, a 10-episode mystery series about the death of a young boy and the subsequent investigation; Red Band Society, about a group of teenagers who meet as patients in the pediatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital dealing with everything from depression to cancer; Batman prequel Gotham;Wayward Pines, another 10-episode mystery series about a Secret Service agent trying to find two missing agents in a town that never lets anyone leave; Backstrom, starring Rainn Wilson as an overweight detective with a knack for solving crimes; and sitcom Mulaney, starring Saturday Night Live writer and comedian John Mulaney, in what the network likened to early Seinfeld.

Buyers also praised Fox for bringing onto the schedule Empire, a drama about the head of a hip-hop music empire whose must choose which of his three sons inherits the spot at the top of his company, a decision further complicated by the return of his ex-wife. This series, with a predominantly African-American cast headed by Terrence Howard, will also feature an original soundtrack written and produced by Timbaland.

Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly describes Empire as “a behind-the-scenes, sort of an Upstairs Downstairs of the hip-hop world,” adding, “I think it’s timely. It feels real contemporary. And we’re going to have chart-topping music. It will be paired with American Idol, which will be streamlined and have a new format. I think that’s going to be a potent night [in midseason].”

One buyer was excited for brands that want to reach a sizable African-American audience, praising Fox for spending the dollars to develop this series.

Of the new scripted series that Fox showed clips on, the only one most buyers polled were skeptical about was Hieroglyph, a drama set in ancient Egypt that follows an ex-thief now serving the Pharaoh. 

Another question mark, buyers felt, was reality series Utopia, from Big Brother creator John de Mol and based on the Dutch hit of the same name, which brings 15 Americans to an isolated and undeveloped location for an entire year and challenges them to work together to build their own civilization from scratch. The concept is a bit different than Survivor, and is more like an outdoor Big Brother, but a lot will depend on how the initial audience bonds with the group.

Wait and See Attitude

Buyers said their initial impressions of the series could change as they examine the scheduling to see what the shows would be up against from the other networks.

Gotham will air Monday night at 8, leading into last year’s freshman drama success for Fox, Sleepy Hollow, at 9. Both will be up against NBC’s The Voice and ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, but both also will skew more male compared to the two competition shows.

Utopia airs on Tuesday night at 8 leading into two Fox low-rated returning comedies New Girl and The Mindy Project and if Utopia draws some female viewers, they could stick around for the female-skewing sitcoms. Half the participants in Utopia are female.

Fox is pairing returning reality series Hell’s Kitchen on Wednesday night at 8 p.m., leading into Red Band Society, and on Thursday night Bones at 8, which continues to be a strong drama for Fox no matter what night it’s on, will lead into Gracepoint.

On Friday night, Fox will run a second first-run episode of Utopia, leading out of returning MasterChef Junior. Mulaney is airing on Sunday nights at 9:30 leading out of the animated Family Guy, as Fox has decided to intermingle scripted comedy within its animation block.

The one thing very noticeable to media buyers was the downplaying of American Idol during the presentation. Idol host Ryan Seacrest did briefly welcome the audience at the start of the festivities, but other than that, the only mention of Idol was when Reilly said Empire would be paired with it in midseason.

One Fox executive said the goal of the presentation was to focus on all of the network’s new programming and highlight the investment Fox made in that programming. And that strategy apparently worked based on buyer comments.

As for Idol, Reilly said its decline in viewership did play a role in the network developing more big-budget dramas to fill in the time that will be freed up by cutting back on Idol hours.

Will Less Be More for ‘Idol’?

“We’ve always built our second season schedule around Idol, knowing that it was a fixture and knowing pretty much exactly what the format was going to be,” Reilly said. “Next year the [Idol] format will be different. It’s going to be less hours. It will be 37 hours. It’s going to be streamlined. I think you’ll see a two-night format at least initially during the audition phase. But I think it will end up being a two-hour show on one night through most of its run. That is a work in progress.”

So how much longer will Idol be on Fox? At least next season, but the series, because of its ratings shortfalls, did cost the network lots of ad dollars in make-goods.

Idol is not going to come back to being the ratings champion it once was,” Reilly said. But he added that he believes the show could still be a “potent time period contender and a top-rated unscripted show,” likening it to CBS reality series Survivor, now in its 14th year and still “vital.”

It also seems worse to present earlier among the broadcast networks because with each new presentation, buyers initial recall of the shows of that first presenting network grow fuzzy, at least until they get to view the actual pilots.

Fox presented 10 new series (although not showing clips from all), while NBC earlier in the day on Monday, presented 12 new series.

NBC’s Better Position

Buyers were not as bullish on as many NBC series but with NBC having a bit more ratings success than Fox this season, NBC is in a better position heading into the upfront.

Arguably, NBC’s biggest news was not made by a new series, but by the announcement that it would be moving its drama hit The Blacklist from Monday night at 10, leading out of The Voice, to Thursday night at 9, following the completion of the Thursday Night Football telecasts on CBS.

Buyers believe it will give them another alternative on Thursday nights to reach weekend shoppers—particularly in the retail, movie and auto categories. NBC has been almost non-existent on Thursday nights in the past several years and that has cost the network significant ad revenue.

There are a couple of caveats in the NBC moving of The Blacklist. First, how will it do without The Voice lead-in? And also, ABC announced on Tuesday that it will be moving its top-rated drama Scandal to Thursday night at 9. Both Scandal and The Blacklist draw heavy female audiences.

NBC heads into the last week of the season with its regularly scheduled programming averaging 7.5 million viewers, up 21% over last season and its 18-49 demo rating at a 2.2, up just under 5%.

NBC did spend some time during its presentation touting its ratings success this season, but buyers still remember that other than The Blacklist, lots of the network’s new programming this season, much like Fox’s, did not rate well, particularly its freshman comedies.

Said one buyer: “They do have a right to brag a little, but they also have to produce for next season.”

Speaking of which, NBC is bringing seven new comedies into the fold and among the buyers polled, the favorite was Marry Me, about a guy set to propose to his girlfriend when she goes off on him for not proposing. He decides to wait and a series is born, as the two navigate life and try to get back to the proposal moment.

The network seems high on sitcom Bad Judge, starring Kate Walsh as a former wild child, now a judge, who still does things in an unorthodox way, particularly in her personal life. Some buyers think it might be a little over the top, much like Fox’s Rake, where the behavior of the star character didn’t exactly rake viewers in.

Buyers can make suggestions, but it’s the marketers of the brands who actually decide what shows they want to buy, and it’s the viewers who decide whether to tune in or not. So no one will really know until the series airs.

On the drama side, buyers said State of Affairs, starring Katherine Heigl as a CIA analyst who assembles the President’s daily briefing, seems like it has a solid chance to succeed. Alfre Woodward plays the president.

One buyer noted that, “NBC is giving this series every chance to succeed, giving it The Blacklist time period leading out of The Voice, when The Blacklist moves to Thursdays.”

Other buyers mentioned Allegiance as having a chance for success. This series is about another CIA analyst who discovers his parents are covert Russian spies. It sounds a bit similar to the FX drama series The Americans, which is not exactly pulling in mass audiences on cable.

NBC will air new drama Constantine, based on the DC Comics series Hellblazer on Friday night at 10 p.m., leading out of its returning sci-fi series Grimm. But some buyers pointed out that this is the same time period where Dracula failed this season and say Constantine seems darkly over the top, at least from the clips.

Deborah Messing returns to NBC, this time in drama series The Mysteries of Laura, a strange sounding title, where she stars as an NYC homicide detective who has to balance her day job with dealing with her twin boys and her soon-to-be ex-husband, who’s also a cop. The story line seems like it’s been done before, but buyers are curious to see if the series can become more about Messing dealing with her family life than Messing the cop.

While media buyers have some questions about some of the NBC series, they are also impressed with the investment the network has made in the number of new shows. And as usual, heading into the upfront and ad negotiation time, the more competition in new programming each broadcast network can offer, the more the buyers can play one network against another.