A Humbled Fox Seeks to Change Its Fortunes

Renews some shows, mulls the return of 24, X-Files and Simon Cowell

The last time Fox was at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, then-chief Kevin Reilly declared that pilot season was dead (which topped my list of the most ridiculous statements network presidents said last year).

Well, Reilly stepped down last May, pilot season is alive and well, and a year later, the new regime—Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman—offered no bold proclamations about changing the industry. After all, they're too busy trying to rescue their network from the ratings basement and one of the worst broadcast falls in recent memory.

"We are well aware we're the fourth-place network and our ratings are challenged," said Newman. "We know it's going to be an uphill battle to turn this network around, and there's only one way to do it: put your head down, do the hard work, get in business with the best talent, support their visions, focus on one time period at a time, and slowly but with a little bit of luck, our team will be able to turn this network around."

This month's blockbuster debut of its new drama Empire—which premiered to a 3.8 rating in 18-49 and actually went up in its second week, to a 4.0—is the duo's first step toward putting last fall's flops (basically everything with the exception of Gotham) behind them. That's why Newman and Walden said they had renewed Empire, along with Gotham and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for next season.

They're also trying to get their unscripted series back on track after the disastrous Utopia. One day before meeting reporters, Walden and Newman replaced their head of alternative programming and now seek unscripted shows that are "building on what we have," said Walden, pointing at more Fox family-friendly hits like American Idol (which is a shell of its former self but still making money) and MasterChef Junior, a lone bright spot in the fall and one of only eight shows with season-to-season ratings increases.

After last summer's successful return of 24 as a limited series, Fox is in talks about about a new installment of the show in 2016, one that might not include Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer. An early pitch from the 24 creative team "was in the very origin stages and it could have gone either way," said Walden. "We're not talking about continuing the show without him; we're talking about whether there's one installment that he's not in."

Walden and Newman have also talked with The X-Files creator Chris Carter about continuing that show. "We're hopeful of being able to bring that back at some point," said Newman, though Walden emphasized that Carter and stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would have to be involved. And while there are no discussions yet about Prison Break, "we would bring Prison Break back in a heartbeat," said Newman. "It's probably the perfect event series."

There's one other very famous Fox brand from the past that could return to the network: Simon Cowell. "We have been meeting with Simon," said Newman. "We like Simon very much and would love to be in business with him." Those talks are not about an American Idol return but on a new competition show (his U.S. version of The X-Factor was canceled last year after three seasons).

"He's a great showman," added Walden, "so when we talk about the direction that we're trying to take the brand and trying to bring that showmanship back to the network, he felt like a person that epitomized that showmanship."