It's upfront time, that annual event where the major broadcast and cable networks go all out trying to convince advertisers their slates will give them the best return on investment. While the entire event is catered to the business world, both analysts and viewers can learn a lot about the where television is headed starting this fall.
Pilot season is a time-honored tradition in the TV industry, but earlier in the year Fox (NASDAQ: FOXA ) shook up the status quo by doing away with it at the network. The idea being it was an outdated model that didn't work and now executives are looking to try something new.
Essentially the network just put a big spotlight on its schedule as all eyes will be on the ratings to see if this new approach works. Granted Fox is right in acknowledging its last few fall slates haven't exactly hit the mark, so why not try something new? This past year though the network made some solid selections -- if you take away the critically maligned Rake and the even worse received (if that was possible) Dads, you have what amounted to a solid fall.
Many have forgotten Fox hit the bulls-eye with supernatural series Sleepy Hollow. The 13-episode drama, based on the legend of Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman, got an early jump on the new fall season and immediately caught on with viewers. It was renewed very early and became one of last year's big winners.
Fox's luck continued in the reality and comedy realms as well with the Gordon Ramsey-fronted Masterchef Junior becoming a viable hit and Andy Samberg's Brooklyn Nine-Nine winning over critics and audiences. Masterchef earned what amounted to a two-season renewal and Brooklyn won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy and likely will be nominated for an Emmy. The three series represent a core trio for the network that will be able to bolster any new pickups.
What's coming back?
Fox also has a roster of established series to help protect its freshman class. Comedies New Girl and The Mindy Project have already been picked up and should provide lead-in support for new laughers. On the drama side Fox has what may be the final season of Bones queued up with Kevin Bacon's The Following set for an expected 2015 winter return. Audiences also could get another abbreviated run of 24, which will make its anticipated return on May 5. In addition animation remains a strong suit as staples The Simpsons and Family Guy will both be back with new episodes in the fall.
With just one real bubble show in Almost Human, the big question with Fox is more where the network will air its "event" series. Of the four announced last year, Cosmos and 24 have been slotted, leaving Wayward Pines and Broadchurch remake Gracepoint on the bench. Both will get big splashy pushes and both are highly anticipated, but because of their serialized nature and big-ticket appeal, they'll have to be separated on the schedule.
Likely one will hit in the late summer/early fall and the other in the winter/spring, but we'll have to wait until next month for answers. These are two big weapons in the network's arsenal and a crucial part of Fox's new business model. If they work, it will influence other networks to invest in this type of program on a larger level.
What's on the horizon?
As it is, the network will have its hands full with its first organic slate of non-piloted series, which will be under the microscope. Fox has put a lot of faith in Rainn Wilson's Backstrom, the high-concept drama Hieroglyph, and comedy Mulaney, among other projects.
DC Comics-based Gotham starring The O.C.'s Benjamin McKenzie, Lee Daniels' hip-hop themed drama Empire, and Octavia Spencer's Red Band Society are also making big waves and could be game-changers. Keep in mind that some of those also have the potential to be expensive given that a few come with high penalties if not given a series order.
Fox has always been a difficult network to analyze because it hands seven hours a week back to its affiliates for either syndicated programming or local news broadcasts every night at 10 p.m. The assumption is the unique schedule forces its lineup to be "tighter." That's not always true, which is why this new way of programming is so fascinating.
The network has only so many positions to fill, although X Factor's cancellation frees up two hours of real estate. That goes away in the winter when American Idol returns, but given the new trend of shorter-run 13-episode seasons, that may not be a problem.
Part of the appeal of shows like Sleepy Hollow and The Following is that they are less of a commitment. Shorter seasons also lead to less filler and more streamlined plots, something cable learned a long time ago. Fox is the only network that really understands that concept and that gives it a huge edge...which is something advertisers will surely notice.
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