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Why Fox’s ‘Cosmos’ Is a Smart Risk

By Brett Gold - Mar 9, 2014 at 3:36PM

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Fox's "Cosmos" represents a new way of thinking for TV networks and its success will be watched closely by rivals who may be interested in investing in similar programming.

The TV industry is changing -- what once was a big success may now no longer be as viable. As a result companies will do anything to boost their ratings and in turn their financial bottom lines. Fox ( FOXA ) has embraced this concept like no other and tonight its first of many 2014 investments into "event programming" begins with Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey. 

Event programming

(Credit: Fox)

Fox's 2014 slate includes the usual procedurals, comedies, reality competitions, and animated fare, but it also includes a number of event "experiments." Much has been made this year about the network's decision to abandon pilot season, but Cosmos and other shows like it transcend that decision.

The success of this type of programming isn't fully reliant on the usual development cycle. It's not even necessarily built for the long run. It's built as a way to test the waters and see how viewers respond. Should it work, executives can start crafting round two, but until proven it's very much a short-term proposition. 

Cosmos is the first of a number of big-name "event" series slated to air on Fox in 2014, along with the return of 24, the American adaptation of Broadchurch (called Gracepoint)  and M. Night Shyamalan's Wayward Pines. Yet while those are all fictional series, this one is very real and looks at our world's fabric and DNA. It's not your usual program and not one you'd expect to air in primetime, but it's one that has a very realistic chance of success.

Re-launch vs. reboot

(Credit: Fox)

The original Cosmos went off the air 34 years ago and this iteration will look to essentially pick up where it left off. This is not a reboot, but like TNT did with Dallas, this is a continuation with new aspects. Noted astronomer Carl Sagan, who created the original, will again open the series with his trademark introduction. Beyond that the torch is passed to famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Sagan passed away in 1996, but his widow Ann Druyan is picking up the mantel. Druyan has written new installments of the series that look at new scientific advancements and questions that this generation has about the world around them and then Tyson will visually guide audiences through some of those answers.

Fox also has a secret weapon in charismatic entertainer Seth MacFarlane, who is one of the series' executive producers. Few people have brought the network more viewers (and attention) in the past few years than MacFarlane, whose Family Guy has a long and twisty history with Fox. Eventually executives began to embrace the popular performer and Cosmos came from that relationship. MacFarlane has a lifelong interest in science and was a huge proponent of bringing this series back to TV. Between him, Tyson, and Druyan, this will clearly not be the same Cosmos audiences first saw decades ago.

Industry impact

The twist will be reinventing the series while holding tight to its core principles. If successful that will bring a whole new demographic to Fox and its broadcast partner in the series, National Geographic. These are all massive names in their fields and that adds to the show's credibility.

It's hard to see something like this running on any of Fox's main rivals. Those networks are so tuned into the established way of doing things it's hard to get enough people on board to make a real change. Although if executives are serious about wanting to change the industry and top their competitors, they need to take the threat more seriously and expand their horizons. 

Traditional TV is being given a real run for its money right now with the success of Netflix ( NFLX -3.76% ), Hulu Plus, and Amazon ( AMZN -1.81% ) Prime, and the major networks need to do something to shake up the playing field. While Netflix is winning that race for the time being, the other two services aren't that far behind and will eventually start looking to alternative types of programming. If Cosmos is successful, this will be one of those types under consideration, and if first adopted by the streaming networks, broadcasters could fall even further behind.

For Fox, this isn't just a smart risk because it's an example of outside the box thinking mixed with a strong pedigree of producers. Cosmos represents an opportunity to gauge what it is audiences are looking for in today's TV landscape. This is a big reason why 10 networks have agreed to give up time on their very profitable Sunday primetime lineups.

The show gives Fox and its partners a chance to gather intel that can be used for other upcoming projects while at the same time putting out a product that could be both entertaining and interesting at the same time. If this works, more networks could start simulcasting their big-event programming. It's a new way of scheduling and one that could alert audiences that something big is happening that they need to check out live. While the new +7 ratings numbers are slowly gaining credibility, advertisers covet live viewership even more (it's harder to skip over commercials that way) and projects like Cosmos could be a major draw. 

On the surface, this may seem like just another ordinary series launch, but it's one that needs to be watched because the ramifications will affect how networks develop and program future slates (as well as what advertisers will want to buy on those slates) for many years to come.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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