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Fox Is Rebuilding Its Slate, One Hit at a Time

Dana Walden on the network’s midseason momentum

Fox Television Group Chief on rebuilding Fox's slate one hit at a time. | Photo: Dennis Roy Coronel/C-Suite Quarterly

As co-chairman and co-CEO of Fox Television Group, Dana Walden, alongside partner Gary Newman, now oversees both Fox Broadcasting Company and 20th Century Fox Television, which Walden (who started there in 1992) has run with Newman since 1999.

But when she and Newman took over the network last summer, replacing Kevin Reilly, who stepped down shortly after the Fox upfront last May, they received a baptism by fire. Aside from Gotham, audiences rejected all of Fox's new fall shows, including Utopia, Mulaney, Red Band Society and Gracepoint. Then, hip-hop drama Empire, from Walden's studio, wiped the slate clean in January, becoming the biggest new series in decades, with an unprecedented seven consecutive weeks of audience growth and an 18-49 rating of 5.4. The show has helped pull Fox from a distant fourth in 18-49 this season to a tie for third with ABC.

Walden—who jokes that she handles the "fun stuff" (i.e., creative issues) while Newman gets the "hard stuff" (business issues)—talked about surviving Fox's fall to forget and how she'll capitalize on Empire's success.

Did you have any idea that last fall was going to be as rough as it was?
Yes. Going in, Gary and I always anticipated that this was going to be a really tough fall. We were encouraged by Gotham, encouraged by Sunday night. I felt like our job as the new leaders was to stay focused on the positive momentum and point to things that establish what we wanted to do in the future. That was a far better approach than being mired in how demoralizing the overnights can be.

You and Gary have been in the new job for seven months. How has it been working out managing your network and studio hats?
We're still learning a lot about where we need to be, and we genuinely want to empower the layer of management underneath us. More than anything, we're working on what's the right level of communication so that we can stay in the loop and help to guide.

What was the priority as you started to rebuild the network?
I would say the priority was to set priorities—like we did with Empire, like we did with Gotham in the fall—so that people can appropriately focus attention and understand that ultimately building circulation on our network is good for every show.

Does Empire's success restore your faith that mass hits are still possible?
Yes. I've had so many conversations with my peers at other networks in broadcast and cable, and over and over again the sentiment is, this is just great for the business. It has sent a wave of enthusiasm and optimism through our business that you can create a scripted show, something that's not a live event, and you can still eventize it in a way that a lot of people are going to make it appointment watching.

You've already renewed Empire for at least 13 episodes. How do you juggle wanting a larger episode order to take advantage of that huge audience but still keeping it at a size that creatively benefits the show?
We're talking about it right now. It's a balancing act. There are a lot of production pressures on this show because every episode has to have at least a piece of original music. I don't think Empire's going to be a 22-episode order next year, but we're trying to decide exactly what the right number would be that places an emphasis on protecting the show.

Meanwhile, your other new midseason drama, Backstrom, is struggling in a really tough Thursday time slot. Are you going to make a change there?
No. We are very committed to exhibiting patience with a show that we believe in, like we believe in Backstrom. Creatively, this show is in a really good place. I wish there was an opportunity on our schedule right now to give it some exposure in a different time period. But we view it as a show that has a lot of potential to be a long-term asset.

You took a big risk with your new comedy, The Last Man on Earth. What prompted that?
This was one of the most entertaining pitches I ever sat through. It was just so funny, so original in its vision from Will [Forte, its creator and star]. And I feel very proud when I look at our development and I see a show like this that doesn't feel like, "How can we capitalize on the success of Modern Family?" Every once in a while, you just have to take that incredibly bold, original swing, like we did with Arrested Development.

As you look to next season, how has the gargantuan success of Empire changed your thinking about which shows to pick up?
The business will no longer tolerate just a good, solid procedural, or the young adult ensemble that doesn't have any reason for being right now other than "they're just five funny guys." Those days are over. Empire highlights our original strategy at the studio, which is the job of a great executive to push your creators to do the boldest version of what's in their head. And I would extrapolate that out of this experience, more than "well, we want to do an all African-American cast with music as a companion to Empire." We would never approach our development that way. What it said is, if you do something that is original, you have a good shot.

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