Up Front at the Upfronts: Fox

Brooklyn Nine Nine

This week in New York City, the four broadcast networks are unveiling their fall schedules, complete with renewals, cancellations and pickups. Though a volley of announcements earlier this week robbed the announcements of much of their suspense, and the very idea of a fixed schedule is irrelevant to a large percentage of the TV viewing public, these announcements remain interesting as the last vestiges of an outmoded business model.

Fox is up second. Click here for the network’s fall schedule with HitFix TV reporter Daniel Fienberg’s analysis. Notable points:

Idol

Idol Shrinkage: After twelve years of dominating three or fours of Fox programming per week, the beleaguered juggernaut American Idol will be downgraded from 55 hours to around 37 next season, according to Fox president Kevin Reilly. Those numbers don’t really tell the full story, and Reilly admitted that the show’s next season is very much a work in progress. Ryan Seacrest is confirmed to return, and all three of the current judges (Harry Connick Jr., Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez) are likely to return as well, but the show will shift to a one-night format at some point during its spring 2015 run.

This move reflects a growing trend in network reality competition series. So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars both aired sans results show with their most recent seasons, and Fox shuttered The X Factor after three scattered seasons that failed to deliver on Simon Cowell’s bombastic promises of television conquest. Even The Voice, the “cool” singing show, has taken ratings hits in recent weeks. Music-oriented programming was one of the defining traits of the 2000s, with American Idol and Glee leading the charge, but viewers appear to have become weary of improvement arcs, arrangements and the word “pitchy.”

Where does this leave Idol? Reilly smartly noted that the show will never reclaim its spot at the epicenter of American popular culture. Fox’s goal now should be to maintain the show as a reliable utility player for years to come. The format will need to change, though – no longer can the show pretend that the entire nation (or at least a substantial percentage of it) is watching the birth of a superstar. As with The Voice, which has yet to turn out a genuine hitmaker in its six seasons, Idol will have to acknowledge its increasingly modest reach.

Mulaney

Pilot Project: Unlike NBC, which largely preserved the status quo in the wake of its most successful season in five years or more, Fox has ratings trouble across the board, and its fall schedule reflected a desire to shake up the formula. Reilly has already made the bold step of “eliminating” pilot season from his business model, essentially transforming his network from a rigidly scheduled operation to one that operates on a more cable-like model of developing and releasing shows as they come, regardless of adhering to the September-May timeframe. The buzzy new shows Gotham (a Batman prequel starring Ben McKenzie as Commissioner Jim Gordon in his pre-Gary Oldman days) and Gracepoint (an arguably superfluous remake of the acclaimed BBC drama Broadchurch that features the same creator and the same star with a new location and a new ending) were both developed under this new model, ordered to series before Fox even commissioned a pilot. The same goes for Mulaney, the sitcom debut for former SNL writer and beloved stand-up comedian John Mulaney, and several other shows that remain on Fox’s bench for the moment. The jury is still out on whether Reilly has unearthed the fountain of youth for the broadcast networks or whether he’s merely cushioning the inevitable fall of grace. Nonetheless, Fox’s willingness to do something different stands in contrast to NBC’s “status quo” approach.

Sleepy

Bold Moves: In addition to reinvigorating the process for establishing new hits, Fox is also making moves with its established players. The Animation Domination Sunday brand is getting a makeover, with the critically praised but underwatched Brooklyn Nine-Nine following The Simpsons at 8:30 and Mulaney following Family Guy at 9:30. Sleepy Hollow will air 18 episodes, largely consecutively, as opposed to the initial 13-episode order. Hell’s Kitchen will fill the reality quotient on Wednesdays at 8pm, and Bones will face off against Grey’s Anatomy on Thursdays at 8pm. However, New Girl and The Mindy Project, which the Twitter-cooler embraces even as the general public shrugs its shoulders, will remain on Tuesdays at 9pm.

The move away from Animation Domination is interesting, and perhaps signals a shift away from Seth MacFarlane’s tyrannical reign over the Fox executives’ programming decisions (for better or worse – he ushered both the repellent Dads and the refreshing Cosmos on the schedule in the past year, in addition to Family Guy and American Dad on Sunday). The other moves don’t appear quite as savvy on first glance, though Gordon Ramsay is a reliable draw and Bones generally does well no matter where it is. The bigger question mark is whether viewers will tune in for Fox’s new programming. That partially comes down to questions of quality, of course.

Gotham

First Impressions: The Gotham showrunner recently gave a blowhard interview to Entertainment Weekly about his plans to trump the visual style of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but the show will attract attention and perhaps put the successes and failures of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a new light. Mulaney is awfully promising, especially with a cast that includes Nasim Pedrad and Elliott Gould. I haven’t seen Broadchurch, but Gracepoint continues to strike me as an unnecessary waste of precious resources like Anna Gunn, Jacki Weaver, Nick Nolte and even the star, David Tennant. The obligatory caveat: I’m open to be surprised by any of these shows, or the many more that Fox has on its docket to roll out throughout the next year. Network TV is in transition, and Fox is embracing the slide. Time will tell if that decision will pay off.

Up next: ABC.

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