To Win Back Audiences, Fox Is Reviving ‘Prison Break’

Network leans on familiar brands and faces—and Empire

As it tries to break through the crowded TV landscape and pull itself out of its fourth-place finish last season among adults ages 18 to 49, Fox is hoping to make some noise by bringing back a few of the network's most popular past shows.

Meeting with reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, chairmen and CEOs of Fox Television Group, announced they are developing a limited series revival of Prison Break, which ran on the network from 2005 to 2009. "I feel confident we'll be doing straight to series on that," said Newman. "In this landscape of TV that is so crowded, you have to try to find events that give viewers a reason to come to a show."

The 10-episode Prison Break revival is "a bit of a sequel," said Walden. It will pick up several years after the events of the series. Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller will return as brothers Lincoln Burrows and Michael Scofield (they also co-star on The CW's new midseason superhero drama, DC's Legends of Tomorrow). And the series will also somehow address the show's two-hour series finale in which one of those brothers died. 

Creator Paul Scheuring had "a very logical and believable—in the world of Prison Break—explanation for why our characters are alive and moving around in the world," said Walden.

Fox is reviving the show in part because "Prison Break has had an opportunity to be viewed by a whole new audience on Netflix," said Walden, adding that it has been one of Netflix's most popular library shows. 

The Prison Break news comes as Fox is preparing to air its six-episode revival of another beloved series, The X-Files, in January. "Seeing them back on screen is really exciting," said Newman of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson's return. "Their chemistry is off the chart."

Fox showed reporters a scene from January's premiere episode, in which several classic X-Files phrases are uttered, including "The truth is out there" and "I want to believe." More alarmingly for fans, Scully tells Mulder that she is his "friend," which represents a clear relationship shift from the most recent X-Files film, in which they were a romantic couple. 

But beyond reviving its old shows, Fox is trying to give audiences new reasons to watch its returning series this fall. "You really need promotable stunts and characters to try to drive awareness of your shows in this incredibly competitive TV landscape," said Newman. So Fox is loading up on familiar faces this season: Jason Sudekis will guest star on Season 2 of The Last Man on Earth; Michael Chiklis is joining the cast of Gotham; and Empire has lined up a slew of guest stars, including Pitbull, Chris Rock and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. 

Meanwhile, the casts of Bones and Sleepy Hollow, which now air together on Thursday, will team up for a crossover episode on Oct. 29. 

This season, Fox will also break most of its shows into two separate installments to minimize repeats and allow for "virtually interrupted" runs, said Walden. She said the network has "significant marketing funds set aside" to promote the shows midseason returns after a hiatus.

"There's so much hard work to be done, but we do feel great about where we are now," said Walden. That's in large part due to the massive success of Empire last spring, and Walden wasted little time in noting that as many in the industry are trying to write the obituaries for broadcast TV, "the most talked-about and biggest show of the past season was launched on a traditional broadcast network."

And unlike streaming services that won't reveal their ratings, "on Empire, we will account to you for every last viewer," said Walden. To wit: Walden said Empire averaged 17 million viewers in live-plus-seven, and 26 million in live-plus-30. And even though Season 1 ended in March, 500,000 viewers are still watching episodes on Fox Now and Hulu.

Newman said the show's SVOD success is one of the reasons Fox has been "aggressive" in negotiating for stacking rights, so it can stream all episodes of a show's current season and allow audiences to dive in later.

Empire proved that it's still possible for TV shows to create a cultural and social event each week. "When you put everything out at once," said Newman, referring to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. "You get that one big moment when you release the show, but you don't get the same ongoing cultural impact."

To extend its Empire momentum, Fox announced that it is in development with co-creator Lee Daniels for another music-themed drama, Star. The new series will be set in Atlanta and follow three girls who form a band. "It's from the perspective of the artist," said Walden. 

In addition to talking about its successes, execs also explained why they recently pulled the plug on Knock Knock, a live reality show hosted by Ryan Seacrest, after just two episodes. "We thought it was a big idea to do a totally live show," said Walden. "We found ourselves, on the marketing side, without any assets to show the audience. … It was very hard to explain to the audience what the show was going to be."

And when network officials finally saw the show for themselves, they realized Knock Knock "was missing some of that Fox DNA", said Newman. "It wasn't distinctive."

Looking forward, the network is ramping up its development slate as it prepares to fill the hole left by American Idol after its final season next year. "We're going to have a lot of opportunity on our schedule," said Walden.