Fox Plots Its Upfront From Catbird Seat
A year ago, during its upfront presentation to advertisers, Fox Broadcasting Co., as part of its strategy to program originals year-round, announced three different schedules, with shows starting in June, November and January.
In an effort to make its schedule easier for both viewers and advertisers to follow, the network will unveil just one new season lineup during its upfront presentation May 19 in New York.
This year, Fox leads all networks among 18- to 49-year-old viewers for the traditional season to date, according to Nielsen Media Research. Still, the network remains committed to a year-round programming strategy, Fox’s new President of Entertainment Peter Liguori told TelevisionWeek in his first in-depth interview since he took over the job in March.
“Last year, in a strange way, it was one schedule presented in the perfect trifecta,” Mr. Liguori said last week, as the network finalized its summer strategy.
Unlike last summer, when Fox rolled out about a half-dozen new scripted series, the network is counting mostly on original reality and repeats of its established fare this summer. However, it chose a June 8 premiere date for new crime drama “The Inside” and may launch at least one additional scripted show in an attempt to replicate the summer success of its drama “The O.C.”
Fox will roll out the new schedule this fall, mostly before baseball playoffs take over much of Fox’s prime time. However, as it has done in the past, Fox will launch some shows following the games.
Fox President of Advertising Sales Jon Nesvig joined Mr. Liguori last week during an interview with TelevisionWeek Managing Editor Melissa Grego and Senior Reporter Christopher Lisotta in Mr. Liguori’s new office in Building 100 on the Fox Lot in West Los Angeles. Among the issues discussed: Mr. Nesvig’s expectation of modest growth in upfront advertising dollars, the ad sales force’s love for ratings-challenged comedy “Arrested Development,” Mr. Liguori’s ideas on how to further define the Fox brand and the future of the reality genre and late-night programming on Fox. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
TelevisionWeek: Considering Fox is poised to win both the May sweeps and the season race among the 18 to 49 demographic and be up 2 percent for the season in the demo, what does that mean in terms of your ad sales strategy going into the upfront? Since you have more ratings points to sell, are you looking at additional advertiser categories?
Jon Nesvig: I don’t think there’s any new breakthrough categories. I think most of the projections, at least for upfront dollars, call for some fairly modest growth. … Our focus is on that younger end of the 18 to 49 segment. … Fast food’s pretty strong, beverages. We have a good [ratings] story too … with “House,” “24,” the dramas, where the car business is obviously important, particularly with the introductory and younger models. We’ve got a very good core of returning series.
TVWeek: Traditionally, Fox tends to open and close upfront business relatively quickly. Do you expect to do the same this year?
Mr. Nesvig: I don’t know what the timing is going to be this year. Part of the reason for that is, as a 15-hour network, as opposed to the 22 [hours] of the other guys, there is more demand against our inventory. Historically, it’s been the movie companies and the auto companies that kick things off. So there tends to be pressure developing against our inventory.
TVWeek: An executive at one of the other networks recently said that in a market with so much parity in ratings, it becomes a buyers market. Do you think that’s true?
Mr. Nesvig: Certainly, when you’ve got parity you don’t have that, quote, `must buy,’ but if you look at the networks themselves, NBC is hanging their hat on $125,000-plus [upscale viewership data] this year. They don’t have the overall numbers, so they’re going to hang their hat on that. Primarily, that would be important with the automotives.
CBS has made great strides with younger audiences, but they’re still the older end… the 35 to 49 and 35 to 55 is their strength, so it’s different.
And ABC actually goes both ways. They’ve certainly had some success this year with new series that have been solid demographically, but they tend to be older too.
We’re in a sweet spot, I think, for 18 to 49 with the concentration on 18 to 34s, which positions us pretty well [with the competition]. We’ve got more mass than the younger networks and we’re younger than the older networks. It’s a pretty good spot.
Peter Liguori: Look at the numbers on Sunday night. You talk about being distinctive and differentiating yourselves from a sales perspective, and when you look at those concentrations of young men that we’re bringing in on Sunday nights, it’s a nice talking point for Jon and a real hot spot for advertisers.
TVWeek: You’re not concerned at all about finding ways to get those extra ratings points sold?
Mr. Nesvig: If you look at the overall network pie, it’s the good news, because it’s been declining at 3 [percent] to 5 percent, and now we’re leveling off. I love having more when the overall pie isn’t growing that much, but the fact that we’re stable is [one thing].
And the other thing: What you’re looking at as the biggest driver of the market is the general economy, which seems to be defying everybody and still hanging in there and doing pretty well. But we have seen from a little bit of softness it’s never as bad as you guys say it is, and it’s probably never as good too. But we’ve got a pretty strong scatter market going on right now in the second quarter, and it’s a fair amount of money out there, so I think that’s the thing and the market appears to be pretty solid and we project it [to be so] going forward.
TVWeek: Fox has been at the forefront of the year-round programming concept. Where does that strategy stand and what’s your take on that strategy coming in? Is that still the strategy?
Mr. Liguori: It’s definitely still the strategy. Looking at this summer, obviously, at the stuff that [former Fox Entertainment President] Gail [Berman] had in development, and just overall, when you look at it.
I come from the cable side. Cable is used to premiering shows in the summer. … But network has also done a pretty good job of it. And most notably this network. Look at “The O.C.”; it premiered in the summer. Or when you look at something like “Quints.” We got it out there early, got some attention. We were able to focus the network on it. I think it’s a really good strategy to go after.
The key in making it successful in the long term is presenting quality shows in the summer and basically doing a yeoman’s job of fighting against what is a deep-seated prejudice, which is that it’s on during the summer. You know, “something doesn’t smell right.” Well, I think it’s incumbent upon us to really step forward in the summer with something that’s flashy and does work, and I think “The O.C.” is the best example of that.
TVWeek: For the most part, you’re primarily planning reality for the summer. Do you have an “O.C.” on tap?
Mr. Liguori: We are internally debating that as we speak.
Mr. Nesvig: Last year was a bit screwed up because you had an Olympics in there [on NBC], so it compressed your ability to introduce new things and then delayed your ability to come back with them so that there is more time to premiere series. And while maybe we don’t have to rush and get one on right away in June, you have July and August when you can.
[New drama] “Prison Break” [to which Fox has given a series commitment] is going to be ready-I mean, not that it’s going to go on the air [this summer], but there are a couple of series that, at least … I’m hearing. … We haven’t talked about this, but that they’re getting into production pretty quickly.
TVWeek: How do you plan to present your schedule to advertisers?
Mr. Liguori: This year there will be one
Mr. Nesvig: There were three last year, actually. There was a summer schedule, a post-baseball schedule and the “American Idol” schedule.
Mr. Liguori: I sat there from an outsider’s perspective looking at it last year and really, in a strange way, it was one schedule presented in the perfect trifecta. I just think that we need to approach it as one schedule, especially since the advertisers are used to seeing what happens when “Idol” comes on. They’ve seen the success that this network has had premiering shows in January, most notably “24.” There’s a complete and utter method to the madness now. In the upfront presentation it will be so much simpler to get the advertisers to follow what we’re doing.
Mr. Nesvig: The key thing is it’s the commitment to 52-week programming and to more original programming that’s the important thing rather than announcing specific schedules. I think we had an idea that you could warm up a time period, put a similar show in, and all that made sense. But in fact, the process [evolves] as you see things, and obviously, you see some things that you’re happier with than you might have been before they started production and other things that you’re not as happy. So it makes sense, you’re going to have an idea, but to lock in schedules is probably confusing and is not going to give anybody a lot more actionable information.
Mr. Liguori: The other difference in terms of simplifying it: There will be a number of returning shows acting as lead-ins and lead-outs, and this audience is going to be familiar as to what those shows are and when they’re currently playing. So just structurally, it’s a heck of lot easier to present this year.
TVWeek: And when will this schedule debut?
Mr. Liguori: It depends. We’re going to be looking at whether or not we’d want to get some shows out of the gate early in August and some in September, but clearly there will always be a change in January. And that strategy has worked extremely well with the advent of “Idol.”
TVWeek: So actually, it will be a fall schedule that you’ll be announcing at the upfront?
Mr. Liguori: Yes.
TVWeek: In 25, 30 words, can you tell us what you think Fox Broadcasting Network’s brand is?
Mr. Liguori: I think Fox is the most distinctive of the [Big 4] broadcasters. Fox is the one known for innovation and risk-taking and making noise. And truly attracting that younger end of the demo-those 18 to 34s. We want to continue that path. We spent a lot of time over the course of the last four-plus weeks talking about “is that show a Fox show?” And we’re going to continue to focus on that.
TVWeek: Are you looking in a different way at development of projects currently at Fox than the staff did when you came in? How has that process been going?
Mr. Liguori: I’m not nearly as invested in the shows as they are. Meaning, having selected cast and writers and directors and all those auspices … so I’ve tried to take the position of being more like Joe P. Peoria and really sitting back and wearing two hats- first and foremost that of the audience-And saying, “OK, is this something that will play across the board?”
And secondly, [I’ve approached it] as someone who has to be the guardian of what the network and its brand look like. So in some ways, when you’ve entered the screening room it’s really a luxury. When you’re there in the scheduling room, it’s a little more difficult because you weren’t there when the first seed was planted.
TVWeek: What about a show everyone’s talking about, “Arrested Development”? Where are you with the renewal decision?
Mr. Nesvig: We like it a lot in sales.
Mr. Liguori: Again, when you get to the scheduling board, every one of the shows are your shows. You have to look at it in that fashion; you’ve got be as competitive as possible.
“Arrested” is a show that has done great things for Fox in terms of going out there and communicating the hope and the spirit that this is a network that takes chances and is daring.
With all that being said, it’s just like choosing the draft, being a general manager of a football team, you try to get the best available athletes and you try to put them on the field. That’s something that will happen in the scheduling room.
TVWeek: What time periods or nights are you focused on?
Mr. Liguori: At this point, seven nights a week are incredibly important to me just because it’s the first year I’m tackling it. I will say this: What is heartening has been things like “The O.C.” on Thursday night. The idea that this network has been able to create a beachhead in a very competitive time slot and get the right audience, get the right demos, because it’s an opportunity to grow on Thursday nights. And looking at the great hope of Sunday.
TVWeek: Do you see 9 p.m. on Sundays going drama?
Mr. Liguori: Yes. Anything is a possibility. But right now we’re getting information every week on what that Sunday night block is looking like, and it would be a bold move to play around with a proven success. But it’s something we’re looking at.
TVWeek: Certain types of reality that have played well at Fox have given way to some of the more feel-good fare in prime time and Fox Senior VP of Specials and Alternative Programming Mike Darnell is known for having a unique, even maverick, professional style. How do you see Mr. Darnell, and is there a Fox way of doing more of that feel-good reality?
Mr. Liguori: First of all, I think Mike is a terrific showman, but what I’ve grown to respect over the course of the last couple weeks is that Mike is also a great storyteller.
When he’s at his best, Mike’s work is held to the standard of your typical drama and comedy, which is make them laugh, make them cry, make them think. I think reality starts getting into a questionable area when it’s just make them look.
But when you look at a “Trading Spouses,” for example, at the end of a really good episode of “Trading Spouses,” you actually learn something. It makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you think. And it is a deeper level of storytelling, which he has a unique ability to go after and do.
Even something like “Joe Millionaire,” [as it was] done in its first season, was truly make-you-laugh reality programming.
We’d like to continue to focus on those three things: make you laugh, make you cry, make you think. And those will wind up establishing more evergreen types of reality. Inevitably they’ll be daring, which is Fox’s way of doing things. … Mike and his staff and I will meet once a week and talk about shows that are in development, shows that are on the air, and then they’ll just kind of machine-gun out ideas for what they’d like to explore. … I love that I get to work with someone who plays with as much creative IQ as he does. He is really thinking all the time in an incredibly innovative way.
TVWeek: Where do things stand in terms of developing for late-night?
Mr. Liguori: It’s definitely something that I need to spend more time thinking about. It is curious that Fox, especially given its brand, is probably in the best position to play in late-night.
Nonetheless, that late-night game is a very, very tough game. The failure rate is incredibly high. So I think you’ve got to be really cautious when you go there and you’ve got to be prepared.
First and foremost, our priority is prime time, no doubt about it, and then we’ll see from there. And look, I’ve got to get my feet on the ground before I start tackling late-night. Next time you come by, if you see a couple of personal photos up, then maybe I’ll really know something about it.
TVWeek: Fox bought “House” from Universal before the TV studio was merged with NBC. Now that unit is likely making it a priority to serve NBC, whereas Universal made its business by selling to everyone. Does that concern you?
Mr. Liguori: Vertical integration complicates a lot of things. … I think that’s where branding actually does come in. That’s why it is import
ant to try to define your network and have a distinctive brand out there. Because you hope that you create situations where someone at a Touchstone or someone at an NBC Universal will say, “That is so clearly a Fox show; we have to go to Fox.”
And it also, hopefully, makes the business more efficient, meaning that if all the brands, all the networks, migrate together, there’s a lot of defensive buying that goes on. That’s ultimately inefficient. It’s inefficient for everyone. It’s inefficient for the showrunner, the studio and the network. Basically, they’re putting money down on the table to keep creative to the sidelines.
TVWeek: Is there anything that you plan to do specifically to reinforce the Fox brand?
Mr. Liguori: I haven’t gotten deeply into it, because right now I’m kind of trying to keep the plates all spinning, but after the upfront it’s my hope in a month or two down the road I can wake up any person in this building at 3 o’clock in the morning and ask them what is the Fox brand and actually have them be able to utter something that’s correct and on target. Instinctively, everyone out there does know what that brand is, and I just want to make sure it’s reinforced.