Can These New Fox Shows Rake in More Cash?

Fox lagged the other networks at upfronts last year, leaving millions on the table. With strong returning shows and an intriguing development slate, will 2014 be different?

Apr 21, 2014 at 10:30AM

This May when advertisers gather in New York for television's annual upfronts event, Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) will look to improve upon last year's sale commitments of $1.8 billion (CBS, by comparison pulled in more than $2.5 billion ). This is roughly similar to Fox's 2012 performance, so now the question becomes, will Fox's new slate woo advertisers?

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Fox's ratings in 2014 have been heavily buoyed by football—the network aired both the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship this year. But this March, with football in the rear window, the network averaged the lowest ratings among the coveted 18-49 demographic. Even the perennial ratings juggernaut American Idol is underperforming .

In the 2011-2012 season, advertisers paid between $468,100 and $502,900 for a 30-second spot on American Idol , the network's highest grossing show. In 2012-2013, that number dropped to an average of $355,946 . Given this year's drop in ratings, that number is likely to sink even lower this May.

Some of Fox's other big money makers saw drops in revenue over the last two years as well. In 2012, the Zooey Deschanel hit New Girl pulled in $320,940 for a 30-second spot . In 2013, that number was down to $231,570 . Since this year's ratings—an average 3.59 million viewers—are a steep drop from the first season's 6.36 million , advertisers are unlikely to match last year's prices.

Even The Simpsons saw a 19.1% drop from its 2012 price, landing at roughly $231,500 for a 30-second spot last year .

With its existing money-makers demonstrating declining ratings, Fox will have to impress buyers with some new projects. Let's look at what it has on tap.

Upcoming shows
The network has already given a 13-episode order to drama Backstrom, a project previously developed at CBS that follows a self-destructive detective played by Rainn Wilson (The Office). It might be a risky move, as viewers did not respond to Rake, which followed another familiar face (Greg Kinnear) as a self-destructive attorney .

Simultaneously, the network has also committed to 13 episodes of Hieroglyph, a historical-fantasy following a thief hired to work for the Pharaoh . But elaborate and fantastic set pieces call to mind the big-budget failure that was Fox's 2011's Terra Nova. The series was canceled after just a few months of airing in fall 2011. Reportedly the pilot episode cost $14 million and each following episode $4 million, but the show's average 7.2 million viewers could not justify that spending . Hieroglyph could therefore seem like déjà vu for advertisers.

This leaves a narrow playing field for the remaining drama pilots that Fox has in contention. A series order seems likely for Batman prequel Gotham, which features familiar faces like Ben McKenzie (Southland, The OC) and Donal Logue (Sons of Anarchy, Grounded for Life). In an era where comic properties continue to be safe box office bets, you can be sure Fox will take a close look at this hero and villain series .

Despite the declining ratings of both Glee and American Idol , Fox seems to insist on considering music programs. Gaining buzz this pilot season is Empire, which depicts a family in the world of hip-hop production . This show hails from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment and will feature original and current music. Still, it's important to note that neither Idol nor Glee ever launched new hip-hop artists (or generated revenue in hip-hop downloads), so Empire could in fact be a smart move on Fox's part to get into a new market, hopefully while simultaneously revitalizing Idol with new (and cheaper) hosts .

But while its dramas seem like big risks, Fox's pre-ordered comedies seem to tread on very safe territory. For instance, the semi-autobiographical project Mulaney, is based on the life and early career of comedian John Mulaney . This is a concept that has done well for cable counterpart FX with Louie . Lastly, the network also ordered six episodes of a project titled Weird Loners, following four anti-social people who become unlikely friends in New York City .

Bottom line
It's clear that Fox is anticipating some skepticism from buyers this May and complementing what might be big-budget risks with safer, more affordable comedies. But with Idol past its prime and no clear breakaway hit, it seems unlikely it will be able to improve upon 2013's sales. 

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Aimee Duffy has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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