20th Team Celebrates Cable Wins
Newman, Walden Partnership Works
Twentieth Century Fox Television Co-Chairmen Gary Newman and Dana Walden celebrated their first pickup of the fall season last week—but it wasn’t for a series at one of the Big Five broadcast networks.
Instead, they broke out the Champagne for the second-season greenlight for FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.” Produced by 20th’s low-cost label Fox 21, the early success of “Sons” serves as further validation of Ms. Walden and Mr. Newman’s decision a few years back to aggressively expand into cable drama production.
The 20th chiefs took time out last week to talk to TVWeek deputy editor and columnist Josef Adalian about their cable gameplan, as well as their take on how the fall season is going. They addressed rumors surrounding Joss Whedon’s much-anticipated new Fox drama “Dollhouse.” And they revealed plans to revive the CW reality show “Beauty and the Geek” on another network.
The executives revealed they’d struck a new contract for a top Fox 21 executive and hinted that renewals are in the offing for animated hits “The Simpsons” and “American Dad.”
Mr. Newman and Ms. Walden also offered a preview of the studio’s 2009-10 development slate, noting that several projects will reflect the sour tone of the country.
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
TelevisionWeek: So what’s your take on how the networks are doing so far this fall?
Gary Newman: It sort of feels mixed. I don’t think this early in the season one can claim success or disaster. There’s a variety of different results that point in one direction or the other. CBS has shown some strength. Monday night, obviously, with “How I Met Your Mother,” we’re very happy with how strong the comedies came back. “The Mentalist” seemed to get out of the blocks pretty well for them.
Dana Walden: And FBC [Fox Broadcasting Co.] typically struggles in the fourth quarter. They’ve got to feel good about where they’re starting at with “Fringe.”
TVWeek: You just got a second-season order for your FX drama “Sons of Anarchy.” Its early success speaks to how you’ve successfully expanded into cable in recent years. It used to be big studios looked down their noses at cable. When and how did that change?
Ms. Walden: There were several examples of shows we could point to, from “Nip/Tuck” to “The Shield,” “Sex and the City” to “The Sopranos.” Those were cable series which made sense for the production entities. They were valuable internationally; they had healthy DVD (sales). Our attitude toward cable was never that it was beneath us. For us, it was always the economic scale of producing for cable and trying to shift the mentality that exists at a studio like this. Trying to do the big ticket sort of 20th Century Fox drama at cable has been difficult because the economics just didn’t support it. So in starting Fox 21, we were starting a label that was specifically devoted to doing passion projects on a more aggressive economic scale. After that, cable drama production becomes a very viable opportunity for us.
Mr. Newman: The thing that really evolved over the last several years was the ability of cable networks to create a lot of critical acclaim and noise for these dramas. If you have a show that demographically has the right kind of makeup, you discover that you can have a real significant DVD sale. That’s what made doing these shows financially feasible. When backends were based on syndication as opposed to DVDs, you never were going to get (to profitability) doing 13 episodes a year.
TVWeek: Why did you need to start Fox 21 to get into cable?
Mr. Newman: We purposely set up a separate division because we wanted there to be no mistake that when someone approached Fox 21 or talked to Fox 21, they knew they were doing a cable production and that it was going to be done on a smaller scale than network programming. We wanted to send a very clear message.
Ms. Walden: Our original intention for creating that label was to create a different environment. It’s off the lot. It’s housed in a warehouse-type environment that feels more creative. It’s a less executive feeling than the environment that all of us work in at the studio. Our goals were creative experimentation and trying rein in costs. It was a pretty natural evolution to a place where we now have dedicated resources to developing cable dramas.
TVWeek: There has been speculation that Fox 21 head Jane Leisner leaving.
Mr. Newman: That’s not true. Fox 21 is here to stay. All that speculation is just BS.
Ms. Walden: We actually just redid Jane’s deal. It’s a multiyear deal.
TVWeek: What sort of report card would you give Fox 21?
Mr. Newman: I don’t know that report card is how we think about Fox 21. We’re really committed to what Fox 21 is trying to accomplish. … Fox 21 is a much more focused entity now than when it started. It wasn’t that focused from a distribution side. Now we’re very focused on it being a cable distribution unit. It isn’t going to be selling scripted shows to [broadcast] networks.
There are also some really good things to point to, most recently “Sons of Anarchy” being picked up for a second season.
Another significant success has been “Beauty and the Geek.” That show lasted four seasons [on the CW]. We’re in conversations about finding another home for it and producing new episodes. And I think that’s probably likely to happen soon. It’s a format that sold in many countries around the world. It’s turned into a nice, profitable business.
[And] we have development at most of the major cable networks. I expect greater productivity and more volume out of Fox 21 in the coming years.
TVWeek: Will Fox 21 get bigger?
Ms. Walden: We’ll definitely be adding staff. What the timing is of that, we’re not certain. We’re waiting for the exact right pieces to fall into place.
TVWeek: Fox 21 and other cable-oriented production companies have shown that quality programming can be produced at a lower price point than similar projects produced for broadcasters. Why?
Ms. Walden: There are a lot of factors. One thing you have to consider is the volume that a cable company deals with, in terms of number of shows. Networks deal with so many shows that you don’t have an opportunity to respond to things in as timely a way as the cable companies do. When you’re not aggressive in getting into the creative material in an incredibly timely way, it all costs money. Cable companies—who typically produce less, who have a more flexible production schedule, who aren’t as married to airdates as the networks are—they can take more time. And the more time you have, the greater the opportunity you have to control costs. There are just fewer layers to work through on a cable network.
(FX chief John Landgraf) is intimately involved in “Sons of Anarchy.” He’s involved right from the beginning. It’s not a matter of getting a director of current programming’s notes, and then the head of current programming’s notes, and then the president of the company’s notes. All of that is time-consuming, and ultimately ends up costing more money. There’s also greater willingness to experiment and draw the line in cable.
Mr. Newman: Some of it is organic. When someone develops a cable show, they know going in they’re going to have to do it on a budget. You’ll find shows with fewer cast members, or where there are more opportunities to build permanent sets so you can have the efficiency of producing indoors on the same set rather than moving about and doing more days outside. All of that ultimately leads to lower budgets, across the board.
TVWeek: So can you bring these efficiencies to broadcast? Have you learned anything that can help you to lower costs?
Ms. Walden: Absolutely. Our head of production is the same person that was the head of production at Fox TV Studios when “The Shield” was created. And that certainly was a model that all of us have looked at and said, “It’s ridiculous that to produce similar quality, our shows are twice as expensive.”
I would also point to “The Ex List” as an example of a show where the studio and network, together, went about creating a template for a show that was on a smaller scale than what the traditional network drama is. When both companies are in lockstep, it is achievable.
TVWeek: Let’s talk animation. It remains a cornerstone of the studio.
Mr. Newman: It has been an incredibly successful genre for us. We, along with the [Fox] network, recommitted ourselves to continuing to, from a television standpoint, dominate that market. We feel incredibly fortunate that the patience we’ve all exhibited with “American Dad” is really beginning to pay off. If you look at the ratings over the last five or six months, there’s been significant growth there in terms of its retention of “Family Guy” in what’s traditionally been a very hard time period.
And as far as “The Simpsons” goes, that show can probably stay on the air as long as Jim Brooks and that cast continue to want to produce it. It continues to deliver great numbers and feel creatively alive.
TVWeek: Where do you stand in terms of renewals for your animated series?
Mr. Newman: With “The Simpsons,” we will hopefully be getting an order for season 21 shortly. With “American Dad,” we should have an order for season 5 very shortly. “Family Guy” is in the middle of production, so there’s nothing to do there. “King of the Hill,” it’s probably time [for Fox to make a decision]. I don’t know if the network will be ordering more seasons or not. That show has had its last rites read to it several times, and keeps rearing its head again. I’m not gonna count out that one out.
TVWeek: How is your “Family Guy” spinoff, “Cleveland,” looking?
Ms. Walden: It’s distinguishing itself from “Family Guy.” It’s hard [for a spinoff] to find a tone that’s reminiscent of the flagship but still has an original element to it, and they’re really finding that on “Cleveland.” It’s very funny, it’s very smart and it feels original.
Mr. Newman: In the next couple months, we should be getting an order for additional scripts and maybe even some additional production depending on how the animatics are looking.
TVWeek: Your animated comedies are doing well, but like everyone else, you’ve been impacted by the networks’ difficulty in launching new comedies. While “How I Met Your Mother” is doing great in season four, your “Do Not Disturb” was the first show of the fall to be canceled. Is there anything that can be done to end the comedy crisis?
Ms. Walden: Patience. “How I Met Your Mother” is a perfect example of a show which has been creatively strong and has been a utility player for its network and thankfully is at a network that exhibited patience when the numbers weren’t exactly what they wanted. And now they’re sitting with a hit.
Until networks open more nights for comedy and create new opportunities for comedy to sit and live and thrive, there are not going to be any more successful comedies, because there are no longer the opportunities to launch them. Someone’s going to have to be bold and do what [ABC Entertainment President] Steve McPherson did with “Desperate Housewives,” which is get behind a comedy and devote all their resources toward launching one of them. There still is this kind of bizarre mentality that there might be some sort of surprise out there, that even if a show isn’t being supported from a marketing perspective that somehow a network audience is going to find it. That typically doesn’t happen.
TVWeek: It certainly didn’t happen with “Do Not Disturb.” Fox put all its eggs in the “Fringe” basket this fall.
Ms. Walden: The network was happy with “Do Not Disturb” and they were certainly getting happier as the later scripts were coming in. But there just is not the opportunity right now for all shows to be treated equally. And I can’t fault the network. They had to take their shot, and they had to place their bets where they thought they had the greatest chance at success. And that was building a new drama franchise. That’s not to suggest they don’t need a new comedy as well, but there is not a bottomless pit of money to devote to any of these campaigns. I agree with them that devoting an equal amount across the board is probably a prescription for failure because nothing is going to stand out. Could they have left it on longer? Absolutely. Given the amount of marketing they devoted to this show, there’s no way to tell whether ultimately they could have nurtured a hit or not.
Mr. Newman: I’m [also] not sure there was much of a chance for “Do Not Disturb” behind a show [“Til Death”] that had already established itself as a 2 rating.
TVWeek: What excites you most as you look ahead to the rest of the season?
Mr. Newman: I feel like we’re more out in front of our midseason opportunities than we’ve been in a number of years. We have “Lie to Me,” “Better Off Ted,” “Cleveland,” “Sit Down, Shut Up,” “Dollhouse”—five series that are coming to the [Fox] network between January and September. And then we have “Glee,” a Ryan Murphy pilot that we feel has a tremendous amount of potential.
I think this is all a result of year-round production. I think year-round production is going to turn out to be a very healthy thing for studios. What I like about it is that it gets us out of the frenzy of producing everything at the same time. It sort of enables you to be more focused and really aim toward the success of projects, instead of the traditional throw as much stuff up against the wall as you can, see which scripts come in, make your pilots and see what gets through.
And even though we’re doing year-round development, we’re developing less than we ever have. I think that’s a good thing. We’re doing much more productive development.
TVWeek: The buzz surrounding Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” has been sketchy. The show shut down production for a couple weeks. What’s going on?
Ms. Walden: Trying to tell stories that involve a genre mythology, while also telling close-ended episodic stories, while also developing characters that people are going to want to come back to week in and week out—it’s an enormous, Herculean effort. [But] there’s no one we have more faith in than Joss Whedon.
The midseason opportunity is a blessing and curse. It’s a blessing because you have more time. And it’s a curse because you have more time. There’s a greater level of scrutiny. There is a greater level of intrusion from executives. The bar just keeps being raised because there’s no urgency to put the show on the air, so at no point do you just let go of it and say, “You know what, now it’s time for this country to decide whether this is something that’s going to tap into the Zeitgeist and become culturally phenomenal or successful in general, or not.” Being stuck in that limbo with a lot of well-intentioned executives is very difficult for a creator like Joss.
With [Mr. Whedon’s WB series] “Angel,” we shut that down at the very beginning of the process. There was a creative retooling. We went back up after a little over a month and the show just found the place where the stories were the most interesting and the characters just popped. And that’s where we’ve come to with “Dollhouse.” There’s a very complicated mythology that Joss is trying to crack in a way that’s satisfying to a broad audience but will also satisfy his core fan base who will watch anything that Joss does. This is a big task.
TVWeek: Is the retooling going well?
Ms. Walden: Absolutely. The first two episodes … are quite good. The third episode is as compelling a script as I’ve ever read. You just fly through it. It’s engaging, it’s exciting. It was the script where everyone said, “You know what, Joss is on to something. We need to give him some breathing room. Let’s take a couple weeks down so the scripts can catch up to this direction.”
TVWeek: How’s development for 2009-10 going?
Mr. Newman: It’s a much lesser-volume approach than we used to have but it’s a far more focused approach. I think our pitches are leaving our offices in better shape than they ever have been. The commitment we’ve made to ourselves is that we’re not just going to go out with as much as possible and see what gets set up and what doesn’t. We still have taken pitches out that haven’t sold, or that haven’t been there for whatever reason, but we’ve managed to set up things at every network that are big commitments and that are things that network executives are excited about. And, most importantly, they are things that we believe in and know that, if we execute them well, we’re going to support them with international revenue and ultimately with either DVD or syndication value, so that we’re doing this for a purpose beyond just making entertaining television.
TVWeek: Just how much less volume are you doing this year?
Ms. Walden: I would say that we have probably 15-20 dramas set up, and probably 15 on the comedy side. The networks are being more selective. It’s clear that, given the number of midseason shows that are being readied now, they’re not anticipating as great a need as they normally would. For sure, there’s less development this year. The attitude at the networks right now is, if it’s not something that feels very compelling, they’re just not interested.
TVWeek: Is the financial crisis in the overall U.S. economy spilling into development?
Ms. Walden: Just a little bit. Over the past six weeks we’ve taken out some pitches where I’ve felt the tone of the country seeping into what was being pitched. There’s a wish-fulfillment element in prime-time television that continues to be a part of development. A few pitches I’ve been out on have been about, you know, “The times are hard but relationships are good and strong,” and, “You don’t need that much to be happy, you need to be surrounded by the people who you love and trust.” I’ve definitely felt like I’ve been involved in three or four pitches where that was the pervasive tone.
There have also been a lot of kind of blue collar arenas coming up now. We’ve always had procedurals, cop shows and medical shows. But I don’t think this is going to be the year where you’re going to see “Chicago Hope.” It’s probably going to be more the year in which someone is going to try to replicate an “ER.”
TVWeek: The two of you are headed into your 10th year together at the top of 20th. What’s the secret of what appears to be a good executive marriage?
Ms. Walden: The thing about Gary is that he still makes me laugh.
Mr. Newman: And Dana still looks as good as the day I first met her. [Laughter.] Like a fine wine, it’s gotten better with age. Our partnership is stronger. We have more faith in each other than ever. It enables us each to venture out into new territories in what we do, knowing that the other person has got our back. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Ms. Walden: I would second that. And if there were any growing pains, I think it was a sense in both of us that we needed to be everywhere together, all the time. The strength of our partnership has enabled us to do so much more to grow opportunities at this company than would never be available to us were there just one person running this company, or if we didn’t have a fundamental trust and belief that we can speak on each other’s behalf. We have a very strong sense of what’s important to the other. … No one in this company has to wait for the two of us to sign off on something together.
TVWeek: Have you divided up your duties?
Mr. Newman: It’s evolved into areas of interest and areas of background. There’s no question that Dana will take the lead creatively. It doesn’t mean she always does. There will be situations where there’ll be two creative meetings at the same time, or there may be a show I feel particularly connected to where I’ll take a creative lead. And generally, the business and distribution side, I take the lead on. But it doesn’t mean Dana doesn’t get 100% invested or take the lead when something is of particular interest to her.
So much of this biz is integrated now, there’s no such thing as creative executives and business executives. If you’re not able to function with both sides of your brain, you’re not a very successful executive in the television business these days.
Ms. Walden: I’m the disciplinarian. Gary’s the fun parent. [Laughter.]