‘First, you know, television in 2014 is pretty cool. People are watching more than 152 hours a month. They are watching on all platforms. Those platforms are growing. But the linear channel is still, of course, the driver of it all.”
That’s Kevin Reilly, president of the Fox network, assessing things in the middle of the 2013/14 TV season. The “linear channel” is your (that’s you if you’re more than 50 years old) TV set. His issue, and he does have a legitimate one, is that rating numbers that emphasize the “linear channel” are increasingly meaningless.
“The standard Nielsen measurement is unfortunately outdated, and it is a mere fraction of the television-viewing universe. Here’s what we are seeing this season. VOD (Video on Demand) is up 44 per cent. Streaming on Hulu is up 55 per cent. These are for Fox shows. If you look at our total roll-up across all of the platforms, while we are flat in the Nielsen numbers, we would actually be up by 8 per cent once you roll up all platforms.
“Show to show, there are some pretty dramatic lifts, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine which goes from 4.5 million viewers up to 8.5 million once you roll it all up. Glee goes from 6.6 million to 10 million viewers. Sleepy Hollow went from 10 million to 19 million viewers. These are not negligible sums. This is television. This is the viewing in 2014.”
Reilly is an always reliable provocateur on the subject of network TV. And Fox has long been a provocative broadcast TV channel. First with sensational reality-TV series. First with American Idol, a performance-show experiment that became a phenomenon still going after a decade and that spawned countless copycat shows. First with contemporary animation in prime time, with The Simpsons and then an entire slate of hot animation shows.
Thus Fox might be first with a recipe to fix the enormously expensive and antique model of making TV and measuring its success. Certainly Reilly says he’s determined to find better ways of doing business and delivering shows to the audience. Apart from tackling the wayward, inexact science of measuring audience attention, he wants to abandon the pattern of commissioning dozens of pilot episodes to be written, allowing multiple to be made and then throwing them on the air in the fall or midseason, hoping for a few hits.
“My point is R.I.P. Pilot Season,” Reilly said. “I’ve been trying to do this for a long time on FOX. Damon Lindelof [co-creator of the upcoming series The Leftovers for HBO] said last week “Cable is far superior to network. When you slow down the conveyor belt, the quality goes up.” And I agree with him. This year, officially for the first time, we are going to be bypassing pilot season. The broadcast, development and scheduling system was built for a different era. It was built in a three-network monopoly when we had all the talent and all of the audience. It’s highly inefficient.
“We, as networks, produce 80 to 100 pilots in a condensed, compressed and crazy two-week period. We go to the upfronts. Then they have six weeks to get into production and get on the air. Honestly, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the talent is able to produce anything of quality in that environment. When they are competing, frankly, with a huge swath of cable that has a lot of flexibility. So here’s what we are going to do – I think we can create a better, more talent-friendly, more consistently creative way to do this. We have, in fact, been ordering series throughout the year and are currently in some stage of series production on nine projects as I sit here today.”
Is layman’s terms, Reilly is talking about deciding to order up an entire series based on the track record of the producers and writers. He’s talking about creating remakes of already successful series from other countries. He’s talking about poaching shows that other networks have decided to reject but fit with the Fox schedule. An example is Backstrom, based on a Swedish crime book series by Leif G. W. Persson and adapted for TV by Canadian Hart Hanson, the creator/executive producer of Bones. A pilot was made for CBS but that network decided it had enough crime dramas. So it becomes a Fox series starring Rainn Wilson as the lead character, a seemingly buffoonish detective. Another example is Gracepoint, Fox’s remake of the British series Broadchurch which will have 10 episodes rather than eight, which he original had, but keep the British lead, David Tennant, in the main role.
Will this work? The key point, perhaps, is Reilly’s statement, “television in 2014 is pretty cool.” It’s not all about ratings measurement and the financial inefficiency of pilot season. It’s about airing TV that’s “cool,” as cable shows are. There are no easy recipes for creating “cool” and everybody knows that.