Mired in 4th Among Adults 18-49, Fox Focuses on Empire’s Bright Future

Network's upfront revolves around its biggest hit

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Advertisers and ad buyers headed to Fox's upfront presentation Monday afternoon, and an Empire concert broke out.

After all, while the network had fallen to fourth place among adults 18-49 this season, it also had launched one of the most successful new shows of the past two decades. 

Empire was mentioned more than 50 times during the first hour of Fox's upfront at New York's Beacon Theater. In announcing its 2015-16 schedule Monday morning, Fox revealed that Season 2 would be 18 episodes—up from 12 episodes this year—and that the season would be split into halves, thereby anchoring both the fall and spring slates.

The network somehow resisted the temptation to open the presentation with Empire. Instead, Toby Bryne, president of advertising sales, talked about the combined Fox Networks (Fox, FX, Fox Sports and National Geographic Channel), which deliver 11 billion impressions a month across all networks and platforms. 

Byrne highlighted Big Fox, the company's new brand integration tool that helps tie advertisers to all of the networks across all channels and platforms. He also talked up Fox's data solutions and the company's December acquisition of TrueX to drive ad engagement.

Rob Lowe, star of the new comedy The Grinder, delivered some of the afternoon's bigger laughs in a prerecorded video satirizing online viewability standards ("What the fuck is that?" he asked at one point) and urging advertisers not to "buy crappy online video where you don't know what you're getting."

Soon after, the Empire tribute began in full force. Co-creator Danny Strong thanked "all of you, the smartest advertisers on the planet, and the most attractive … you're all geniuses" for believing in the show from the start.

Then the Empire cast—Bryshere "Yazz" Gray, Jussie Smollett, Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson and guest star Jennifer Hudson—tore the roof off the Beacon with a spirited medley of Empire's biggest hits: "No Apologies," "Whatever Makes You Happy" and "You're So Beautiful."

"We won't be talking about ratings or demos or the rankings of our shows unless we're talking about Empire," said Fox Television Studios co-chairman and co-CEO Dana Walden, who noted that the show's blockbuster success "proved that broadcast is still the best place to launch an event."

She said the network will nurture its three freshman hits—Empire, Gotham and The Last Man on Earth. "We will grow them by scheduling strategically, marketing relentlessly and continuing to push the envelope," said Walden.

Empire will remain on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET. "It's appointment television, and we'd be crazy to move it," said co-chairmen and co-CEO Gary Newman. The show already has big plans for Season 2—guest stars include Chris Rock, Lenny Kravitz and Alicia Keys.The drama will be paired with new medical procedural Rosewood about Miami's top private pathologist played by Morris Chestnut.

Walden introduced Fox's new shows, including Ryan Murphy's comedy-horror hybrid anthology series Scream Queens, which revolves around a college sorority and the aftereffects of a murder 20 years earlier. "In every episode, at least one character will be killed off," promised Walden. The sizzle reel was fun and over the top—in other words, exactly what you would expect from a Murphy series.

Scream Queens is part of Fox's plan to "create a big, noisy, star-packed night of television" on Tuesdays, said Walden. That also includes new comedy Grandfathered, which "tested off the charts, especially with women," said Walden, and stars John Stamos as a smooth-talking bachelor who learns that he's a father and a grandfather. The reel, which combined solid laughs with adorable moments between Stamos and a baby, got the strongest reaction of the afternoon.

Grandfathered leads into The Grinder, staring Lowe as an actor who played a lawyer on TV for eight years and goes home to help his family with their real-life law firm. The sizzle reel also had some laughs, but not as many as Lowe's online viewability standards video.

At midseason, New Girl will returns on Tuesdays, leading into Guide to Surviving Life about post-college pals, which seemed pretty standard. ("They're going to make a lot of mistakes—so you don't have to," said the announcer.) Fox's other midseason comedy, the animated Bordertown from Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane, is and about two families in a town on the U.S./Mexico border. Judging by early footage, the show seems like it will delight Family Guy fans and repel everyone else.

On Mondays, Gotham will return at 8 p.m.—next season will introduce the Joker and Mr. Freeze, said Newman—followed by new drama Minority Report, based on the 2002 Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise film about "pre-cogs" who can see crimes before they actually happen. The trailer was well-produced but also seemed very similar in tone to previous Fox sci-fi series.

New drama Lucifer, in which the devil leaves hell and moves to L.A. and teams with a female detective to solve crimes, will take over Mondays at 9 p.m. in midseason.

The trailer received a polite but unenthusiastic reception, which was also the case for midseason drama The Frankenstein Code about a 75-year-old corrupt sheriff who's murdered and brought back to life.

Fox spent very little time addressing Monday morning's bombshell announcement that American Idol will end its run after next season. Newman called the decision "bittersweet" but vowed to "send it off with style and class."

Newman and Walden saved Fox's most eagerly anticipated "new" series for last: the six-episode return of The X-Files—"an event series more than a decade in the making," said Walden—which debuts Jan. 24 after the NFC Championship Game.

Production begins in June, and "we've got some fantastic stories and surprises in store," said creator Chris Carter, who was on hand with stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

Where Fox's 2014 upfront seemed bleak and desperate—and led to Kevin Reilly's departure just weeks later—this year's event had a sense of momentum and optimism. That's the difference a hit show makes. As Walden put it: "It's a new day at Fox."

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.