Monday, May 11, 2015

Network Upfront Preview: Fox - From First to Worst

"Empire" is Fox's new smash hit and they desperately need to build on that.

Network upfronts – where the networks all come together to announce their fall schedules and pitch their new shows to advertisers – are here, which means the 2014-15 television season is quickly coming to a close.  I’ll probably have a season wrap-up post at the end of May, but I wanted to take a quick look at each network and its shows before upfronts hit.  Next up is this season’s almost certain last place finisher: NBC.

It didn’t happen in one season or even two, as did NBC’s ascension from last place to the top, but in a span of three short years Fox has gone from a decade of ratings dominance to last place of the four major networks.  And, frankly, it wasn’t even close.  At the beginning of the season I posited that Fox and ABC would be in a head-to-head race for third place, but Fox is going to end up almost ten percent behind in nearly all measures. 

And the sad thing is, there’s a lot to love about the state of Fox programming right now.  The NFL gives the network a nice Sunday boost during the fall.  Empire is a runaway hit and is putting up the best relative numbers of any show in a decade.  Even American Idol, while not the mega-hit it once was, has been capable of keeping its average rating above 2.0, something few scripted shows can do anymore.  But now former executive Kevin Reilly’s plan to abandon pilot season in favor of upfront orders seems to have backfired massively.  The problem Fox found itself with this season was that most of its new shows tanked completely and there was nothing in the bullpen to replace them. 

And so it happened that Red Band Society, Weird Loners, Mulaney, Glee, Backstrom, Gracepoint, and Utopia combined to air 53 hours of sub-1.0 rated programming in 2014-15, roughly one-third of the total of all four major networks combined.  That doesn’t even count The Following, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Bob’s Burgers, all returning series which, at some point this season, dipped below the Mulaney Line.

So what does Fox do?  How do they come back from what can only be described as a disaster of a season?  Clearly the first question is “What will Empire do in the fall”?  The show made ratings history this year, debuting to big numbers and only going up from there, literally.  Every single episode of Empire that aired drew more same day viewers than the episode before it.  Only once did the demo rating go down and only once did it stay the same from week to week.  I don’t think it will come back to the ridiculous 6.9 rating it put up in the finale, but Fox has a once in a decade, maybe once in a lifetime megahit on its hands and as goes Empire, so goes Fox with it.

The other big question is how will Fox build hits in the fall?  Sunday nights are likely to stay the same and Fridays have turned into something of a dead zone for the network.  That leaves four nights needing four lead-ins, but Fox really only has two: the aforementioned Empire and Gotham.  Sleepy Hollow dropped off tremendously this season, as did Bones and neither seems able to support new programming.  Both actually seem like they’d be a good fit for Friday night.  It’s likely that the network will need at least two self-starters this fall.  Unfortunately, they tried the same thing last year, only to see Utopia crater.

The Numbers
NBC’s Live+Same Day average currently sits at 1.47.  Given current trends, I expect it to end up somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.45, representing a 25% fall from last season and, I’m fairly sure, representing the worst annual average in the history of the four major networks.  Even the spring, usually a high point for Fox thanks to the return of American Idol, was incredibly unkind this year with the network currently on pace for a 1.0 average during May sweeps.  Outside of Empire, Gotham, and kind of The Last Man on Earth, there is no painting over just how dreadful Fox’s year was.  The good news, at least, is that they have a lot of room to grow, if they can find the right shows.

The Schedule (Titles in BOLD have already been renewed for next season; titles in strikethrough have already been canceled)
Monday –
7:00pm – Gotham (2.17 average rating)
8:00pm – Sleepy Hollow (1.54) – The Following (1.18)

Gotham did perfectly fine leading off Monday nights in its rookie season.  Sure, it would have been nice to see it hold its fall ratings into the spring, instead of falling about 40%, but given all of Fox’s other problems, it’s tough to complain about a show that can pull decent ratings for a full 22-episode season.  I fully expect to see Gotham right back here this fall.  The bigger question is what will get the lead-out.  After a stellar first season, both critically and in terms of audience, Sleepy Hollow backtracked quite a ways in both in its sophomore campaign.  And The Following, after debuting as the number one drama on broadcast two years ago, has been shown the door, continuing Fox’s now decade-long run producing only one drama that aired more than 50 episodes: Fringe.  Fox really doesn’t have a lot of options, so they’re probably just going to slot in one of their two best drama prospects.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – Utopia (0.80) – MasterChef Jr. (1.66) – Hell’s Kitchen (1.28)
8:00pm – New Girl (1.30)/The Mindy Project (1.05) – New Girl (1.30)/Weird Loners (0.62)

Tuesday and Thursday were complete dead zones for Fox this year so really anything is possible.  Current rumors have New Girl being held for midseason, which could indicate an intent to abandon comedy entirely in the fall.  I’m not sure of the production schedule for Gordon Ramsey’s shows, but with Hell’s Kitchen airing this summer, MasterChef Jr. seems like an obvious choice here as the one show that did halfway decently on Tuesdays last year.  Then again, this seems like the night Fox is most likely to abandon so, again, anything goes.

Wednesday –
7:00pm – Hell’s Kitchen (1.28) – American Idol (2.08)
8:00pm – Red Band Society (0.83) – Empire (5.09) – American Idol (2.08)

The big story here is Empire and its absolutely ridiculous 5.09 average rating.  Presumably it will be coming back to Wednesday nights in the fall, the only real question is whether Fox keeps it at the less-family friendly 8:00 hour or puts it at 7:00 in an attempt to create a lead-in for a new drama.  Clearly NBC is banking on the latter, renewing The Mysteries of Laura only to keep it at 7:00 as fodder for the Empire beast.  Either way, this looks to be Fox’s strongest night of the week next fall.

As for the spring, rumors have American Idol coming back for an announced final season.  The only question there will be if it airs two-hour episodes on Wednesdays again with Empire ending its season early, or if it moves to another night.  Don’t be surprised to see Idol move its two-hour shows to Thursday to accommodate the network’s new hit.

Thursday –
7:00pm – Bones (1.28) – American Idol (2.32) – Bones (1.28)
8:00pm – Gracepoint (0.84) – Backstrom (1.01)

As I mentioned above, Thursday was another black hole for Fox.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bones return here as it did okay in the fall but, again, anything’s possible on this night.

Friday –
7:00pm – Utopia (0.64) – World’s Funniest Fails (0.87)
8:00pm – Glee (0.66)

Fox has basically abandoned Friday nights in recent years.  There’s a chance that it could be revived at least a bit with the right combination of veteran dramas (I’m thinking Bones and Sleepy Hollow), much the way they did with Fringe for a few years.  But it’s just as likely that they’ll fill the night with reality and repeats and focus on fixing the more important holes elsewhere on the schedule.

Sunday –
7:00pm – The Simpsons (2.24)/Brooklyn Nine-Nine (1.74)
8:00pm – Family Guy (2.18)/Mulaney (0.75) – Family Guy (2.18)/Bob’s Burgers (1.26) – Family Guy (2.18)/The Last Man on Earth (1.64)

The spring schedule of The Simpsons, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Family Guy, and The Last Man on Earth actually did surprisingly well for Fox, given all of their other struggles this year.  I expect it to be back in its entirety.

So that’s the Fox network in a nutshell.  Unlike in past years I don’t really have a recipe for improvement for the last place network.  At least ABC last year had several hits to build its schedule around, but Fox really only has Empire and Gotham.  They’ll need to choose their new programming carefully to make sure they don’t waste their prime timeslots.

Tyler Williams is a professional library and amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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