Fox’s New Chef

When Gail Berman announced in March she was leaving her post as Fox’s entertainment president, one name immediately began circulating around Hollywood as her replacement: Peter Liguori. As president and CEO of FX, Liguori (along with now-NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly) had helped put the cable net on the map with edgy dramas like The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. What’s more, already a member of the Fox family, Liguori understood the company’s internal politics, and it was said that Peter Chernin (who answers directly to News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch) liked him. Perhaps most significantly, at a network where Major League Baseball broadcasts have disturbed almost every one of its fall launch schedules, here was a well-renowned baseball aficionado who, for once, might know how to sell Fox’s programming to sports fans. Prior to being named Fox’s entertainment president, Liguori was hard at work with FX programming chief John Landgraf readying the cable net’s next batch of buzz-worthy shows, including the Steven Bochco-produced military drama Over There, the comedies Starved and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and non-scripted show 30 Days from Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock. Shuttling those projects aside, Liguori stepped into the Fox post and virtually inherited not only the network’s fall development slate, but its summer schedule as well. After announcing Fox’s 2005-06 schedule to advertisers at the upfront presentations, Liguori, along with Fox’s president of sales John Nesvig, sat down with Mediaweek senior editor A.J. Frutkin over breakfast for a wide-ranging discussion about the network’s future.

A.J. Frutkin: Last year Stephen McPherson joined ABC right before its schedule was presented. But whereas he was involved with ABC’s development as president of Touchstone TV, you don’t have that advantage. How does that impact Fox’s schedule?

Peter Liguori: I’d love to think that it was actually a positive and a strength. I read those scripts completely with fresh eyes. I went into those screenings with no real investment in who and what should be on the schedule. And I kind of acted like Joe D. Peoria when I screened everything. It was just watch and react, which is way different from intimately living with a show from birth…you know, from start to finish.

Frutkin: So the scripts were pretty much locked when you got there?

Liguori: The scripts were locked. Pilots were shot. Gail was the one who had overseen all those shows and was responsible for those creators and show runners and the casts. I felt that it really would have been a disservice to those people who had gotten to that point [for me] to start noodling with things and making adjustments. At that point it was time to let them do what they do best and then just watch and react.

Frutkin: Did you make any changes?

Liguori: I made changes in rough-cut versions of some pilots. I did the screenings with Gail and then got my hands very dirty at that point. It was a matter of reconfiguring scenes and trying to see if you can put some additional stuff in, but it’s working with material that’s already shot. We didn’t do any re-shoots of anything.

Frutkin: What’s an example of rejiggering?

Liguori: I can’t give you any specific scenes right now, but with [Wednesday 9 p.m. drama] Head Cases, we really rejiggered it to play up the comedy half of that drama. We just feel that with a show like that, it’s almost like The Rockford Files, where you really need to play up the colorful cases and the chemistry between [the characters] on a comedic basis. So there was a real emphasis toward taking that comedy and pushing it up as much as possible within the pilot. I think we had a fairly good level of success.

Frutkin: You’ve put [new crime drama] Bones Tuesdays at 8 o’clock, a new show in a leadoff position. Why?

Liguori: Well, we debated it. If you have a show like House in an established time period and it’s working in that time period, keep it there. That’s point one. Point two is we really love Bones. We have a lot of faith in it.

Frutkin: Jumping back to Monday night, it’s not a night where you’ve done comedy. What was the thinking?

Liguori: Working backwards, Sunday has an established comedy point of view. Friday we really felt wasn’t an opportunity to get comedy on the air. You don’t put comedies like Arrested Development or Kitchen Confidential on a Friday. The Wednesday block we had That ’70s Show working, and we really didn’t want to move that, with a goal toward stability. So we’re locked in Sunday, we’re locked in Wednesday, leaving the choices of Friday and Monday. And since Friday’s not a good night for comedy, Monday was it.

Frutkin: The fall schedule seems more stable than in past seasons. What happened?

Liguori: Having good returning shows seven nights a week created the whole infrastructure to the schedule for what we’re doing moving forward. Every night, the lead-in or lead-out is a returning show, and we layered [new programs] on top of it. We looked at what we had in development and said what do we like? What would be a good companion? As we started going forward, it became pretty evident that we would be putting on those dramas and those sitcoms. And, luxuriously, we have all these backups, all these possibilities down the road, from The Simple Life to Nanny 911 and others.

Stability should be a goal each and every year. Stability means you’ve had past success and you’re having success for that particular year.

John Nesvig: If you define stability as shows returning in the same time period, two-thirds of our schedule [is] returning. That doesn’t count returning series that have moved to a new time period. And the other networks [aside from CBS] I think are 50 percent.

Frutkin: On the subject of stability, obviously a lot has been made or will be made of the summer slate and the 52-week development season. Where do you stand on this? Is there a rethinking going on with that?

Liguori: No. I wasn’t there [last season]. From an outsider’s perspective, it did feel like this tsunami of new programming. But the reality is this summer we brought back Family Guy and American Dad. We have Princes of Malibu, we have Hell’s Kitchen, we have The Inside and we have [So You Think You Can Dance]. We have the same number of shows. We’re just spreading them out over a greater length of time, and we don’t have to worry about the Olympics [on another network].

Nesvig: I think the 52-week strategy had two purposes. One is to have more originals on the air, and two is not to premiere them all at the same time. That’s still the philosophy going forward, as Peter just said. We’re premiering them differently because we don’t have the competitive scheduling constraints as we had before. But the Monday-night strategy is wonderful. You’ve got Prison Break going into 24, giving you 44 weeks of originals in that time period. We think the audience will get accustomed to that.

Frutkin: Fox’s strategy last year was upending how talent agencies do business and how business is conducted, sort of shifting the whole development process off its axis. It feels as if the focus right now is more on the traditional season with just one eye toward summer.

Liguori: I think there’s some truth in that. And you still are constrained by some of the selling processes—the one with the agencies. But while we’re getting pitched, we’re also thinking about if these shows can work for the summer. Which I think is a completely different mind-set than you would have had three, four years ago, when you’d just think, “Should this show make the schedule in the fall?”

In a strange way, it’s almost like the movie business. You try to look for some lighter fare in the summer. Agents, creators, they want to get on the air. They know there’s a summer opportunity for them to get on the air—they’re pushing. I think it’s just good for the business. It’s pushing the creative end of things; it’s giving John something to sell in the summer; it’s helping us to promote into the fall. So, in general, we don’t really look at it as backup. We look at it as a continuum that can help us in all angles.

Nesvig: There’s a little bit of history that goes on too, back in the days when you had 39 originals and 13 repeats. And a lot of that was geared to the automotive market, which each fall introduced all new models at the same time. As the world has gotten more competitive in every area of economic activity, we have too. In fact, the more rating points we can get in a third quarter, particularly for us, as a younger-skewing network, the better. Because it’s a very important time for movies, which are our largest category, for quick-service restaurants, for beverages. So whatever we can get in ratings in the summer, it’s terrific for us.

Frutkin: Let’s go over some of the summer shows, if you don’t mind…Hell’s Kitchen.

Liguori: First of all, I love to cook. And the only theatrical movie I had any involvement in ever was a film called Big Night. Just go to a newspaper stand. There are tons of magazines focused on food. [Hell’s Kitchen’s celebrity chef] Gordon Ramsey is a big personality, absolutely the center of that show and very much the Simon Cowell of cooking. I think people are very curious about what happens behind the swinging doors of a restaurant. This will bring you there. To me there are some incredibly great little twists and turns in that show.

Frutkin: I saw the first episode. He’s pretty mean.

Liguori: He’s not a pussycat, yes.

Frutkin: Because it’s broadcast TV, so many words get bleeped out. Was that of concern to you that every other sentence is interrupted?

Liguori: Look, I wouldn’t say it was a concern as much we were mindful of it. We are actually changing that pilot a bit because what I felt was missing—or what we could have gotten more of—was just how the contestants were reacting to him at the time. We’re going way back into that footage to make sure that that’s more the focus, than just hammering away at that particular night, where he was losing it. I kind of felt that the balance needed to be a little equalized to get in what the contestants were thinking at that time. We’ve been responsible and mindful of the language.

Frutkin: The Inside. Initially this was a show about a young female cop who infiltrates a high school, but the show has changed and now looks like any other cop show. How do you feel about it?

Liguori: Look, I’m excited about the show. I really do feel that it has a popcorn thriller element to it that would work in the summer. [Star Rachel Nichols] is terrific. I love the fact that there are actually two mysteries going on in every episode.

I also think it’s really good in the summer to keep taking swings with quality scripted programming in all areas. I think in the summer it’s easier to put a comedy on or put a reality show on. But if you can nail one scripted drama that would stand out, I think that’s when you start to really changing people’s mind-sets.

Frutkin: Looking at the fall, Prison Break has been described like a 24-paced show. But the pilot moved a lot slower than I expected. Is that because of the need for exposition?

Liguori: Yes. Look, 99.99 percent of pilots need to lay a lot of pipe. This pilot clearly needed to lay a foundation as to what are the elements of the show. However, I think once we now know what the setup is—he’s trying to spring his brother—and given how many obstacles are going to be in his way, I think you’re going to see the pace of the show accelerate [after week one].

Frutkin: Prior to coming to Fox, you had just developed Over There at FX and the two comedies. Do you ever just wake up and wish that those shows were airing this summer on Fox?

Liguori: Yeah, sure. I’m deeply passionate about that. I loved Over There. I feel when you look toward programming that truly drills down to a level of authenticity and truth and emotionality, those are shows that bounce you back. Look at the basic tenets of Over There. Every great drama is life and death situations, and how much pressure can a character take until we know their true self. That show does it, and it does it in a way that’s also challenging to the audience. I hope that the creative community recognizes that I have some instincts in that arena.

Frutkin: What are the differences between FX and Fox?

Liguori: There’s not a whole hell of a lot of difference. It’s all about being innovative, being daring, trying to be distinctive, trying to get some noise. Not just for what the show is, but the approach of those shows…the approach of doing a war drama while an ongoing war is going on. Those are all things that are particularly Fox.

Frutkin: Those are the similarities between the two networks. Are there differences?

Liguori: Not a lot. What is the foundation of good entertainment? Great storytelling, daring storytelling, riveting characters and great talent. Clearly on cable you are able to use a little more expressive language and maybe a bit more violence. But if that’s what you’re depending on to make your show work, you don’t have a good show.

If you want to draw the analogy between the two, Dr. House is an FX lead. Here’s a guy who is in his late 30s or early 40s, he is quite flawed, he has his own moral code of ethics, and in reality he’s brilliant at what he does. If I looked at Dennis Leary’s character [in Rescue Me] or Michael Chiklis’ character [in The Shield], these guys have very much the same mind-set. What I think audiences react to is they see someone on that screen that they have a lot of similarities to. The fact that House is flawed is what, in fact, they’re identifying with. I think those are approaches to characters that’s causing a deeper relationship with our shows and the audience. It’s the same thing in Head Cases on more of a quirky comedy level.

Frutkin: As a baseball fan, can your interest in the game improve the use of Major League Baseball to launch new programming?

Liguori: When you drive that level of audience to your network, you should be able to take some of those people and get them interested in your shows. If you couldn’t do that, you wouldn’t have the movie advertisers on sports. What I think you have to do is make sure you have shows that stand a good chance of appealing to that audience.

I’m being critical here for a moment, but I think we learned a lesson from [fall 2003] when you look at something like Skin, which at its core was a Romeo & Juliet love story between two teens who were not destined for a good fate. That is a very difficult story to sell to someone who’s watching the World Series. When you’re talking to them about Prison Break…First of all, if I just say Prison Break on Fox Monday nights, I don’t think I have to fill in a lot of blanks. They know what that is.

Frutkin: We haven’t spoken about reality. I know that you expressed a great deal of respect for Mike Darnell. Are you going to stick with Mike’s philosophy?

Liguori: I think Mike’s at his best with terrific storytelling. Even The Swan, in a strange way, at a deeper core is storytelling—queen for a day. We’re always going to have that tension between “Is this just to make them look?” shows or “Is this to make them think?” shows. I think that’s a good process to go through.

Frutkin: And comedy. Advertisers support you bringing back Arrested Development. Do you see it as loss leader?

Liguori: We’re not looking at it as a loss leader. If we were, there would be no way we would be putting it on Mondays at 8 o’clock. The theory is simple. It is rare that you are able to put on a show that has that level of quality, that level of innovation and that level of loyal viewership, but also happens to be really risky for John and his team. When you look back at some of the great comedy on TV, [those shows] took a while to grab hold. What we want to do is put it in a time slot that we felt it could compete and we felt it could grow its audience, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Frutkin: Have you talked to [NBC Entertainment president and former FX head of programming] Kevin Reilly at all?

Liguori: Yes, he literally e-mailed me just this morning, and I called him right before his upfront and left him a message. I said, “Break a leg. I hope your presentation is great and that your show stinks.” That’s how we go at it. And his e-mail today was, “Let’s get together for a drink when you’re in New York.” We’re going to compete as if the other guy just kicked our dog or our kid, and then we’re going to go out for a beer and realize that we have a lot of history and a lot of respect and lot of heart.

Frutkin: Doug Herzog had a tough time at Fox. Kevin’s having a tough time at NBC. Is there a curse on cable guys coming to broadcast?

Liguori: [Points to Frutkin] Give this guy the check.

A.J. Frutkin is a senior editor at Mediaweek who covers TV production.