No one is laughing now.
For the past several years, owing to choices that fly in the face of conventional TV-industry wisdom, Fox has set the tone for broadcast TV. Sure, it runs fewer hours of original programming than the Big Three, NBC, CBS and ABC. And it has no evening-news broadcast. Yet Fox's practice of launching its best-known shows in the second half of the season rather than the fall have helped it generate better momentum than rivals during an extremely difficult time for the broadcast business.
The network isn't immune to outside forces, of course. Digital media is altering viewers' consumption patterns, and the writers strike accelerated ratings erosion overall for broadcast TV. Even so, Fox in the first quarter of this year has handily trumped its rivals in wooing prime-time audiences between the ages of 18 and 49 -- advertisers' most desirable audience -- as well as those between the ages of 25 and 54. It has won the 18-to- 49 title for three seasons running, thanks largely to its hit "American Idol." And Fox has managed to keep some of that audience coming back for complex dramas such as "House," "Bones" and "24."
Fox is no longer an upstart; it's a game changer. Peter Liguori, chairman of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Co., has played a large role in that process, talked with Advertising Age about how the network plans to stay that way.
Advertising Age: Fox has found much success by breaking up the September-to-May TV season. "American Idol" and "24" are usually runaway hits in the spring. Now it looks as if your rivals are set to implement similar strategies. How do you plan to fend them off?
Peter Liguori: By sticking to our knitting and sticking to our strategy and by outprogramming them. Our best defense is great hit shows, and we're fortunate to have a very stable schedule, with "Idol" predictable, also shows like "Prison Break" and "Bones" and "House," and a way more stabilized Thursday and Friday night, with some other unscripted shows that we have -- and, of course, our stalwarts on Saturday and Sunday. In the [coming] fourth quarter, we're in very solid shape. In the first quarter, when we come back with all barrels blazing, with [college football's] BCS championship series, the NFC playoffs and [Nascar's] Daytona, we feel very comfortable [having those programs] with "24," and I think it will be an extra-special year for "24" as well as [for] "American Idol." We have great launching pads for what typically is the season when we premiere the bulk of our shows.
Ad Age: What effect has the writers strike had on your ability to develop new programs for the fall? Obviously you have Major League Baseball in September and October, but when can advertisers expect to see new scripted series from Fox?
Mr. Liguori: We don't have many needs, so therefore we're fortunate enough to ... limit our number of premieres in the fall and focus our marketing and attention on those new premieres and basically make sure we are avoiding having a diminished share of voice. ... I feel like the audience reaction is that they are tired of [the traditional onslaught of new fall premieres]. It's too much. It's overwhelming, and it's complicated enough. I just want to focus on a few new shows, and I think that's what we have to do at Fox ... get them to sample, get them onboard and then move on to the first quarter, when we have way more traction and a way better promotional platform.
When you look toward fall and the upfronts, I hope to be able to show advertisers -- let me put it to you this way: The fourth quarter is going to be competitive. There will be maybe three or four comedy pilots completed and maybe two drama pilots, and we'll have been shooting a third but won't have edited that third. ... I've gone to Detroit. I've gone through New York and taken a number of agency meetings. I'm just telling the advertisers now, when we come to the upfront, we are not going to come to them with full, finished pilots. We will share where we stand, where the logic makes sense with the time slots for our new shows going into the first quarter. We will explain to them what our options are and what our thinking is.
I feel like in this environment, where everyone is coming out of the strike, it is imperative that we from the network side have greater transparency with our advertising partners. ... They understand that our goal is to, as much as possible, avoid volatility and failure. If Kevin [Reilly, president-entertainment, Fox Broadcasting Co.] and I could more slowly bake some of these shows and some of these pilots in preparation for January, February or March premieres, it's all the better for everyone, because the show is ready to impress and less of a likelihood that we're going to yank it off the air. It creates more stability and less volatility.
Ad Age: At least from a story viewpoint, "24" has had a weak season the last time it was on. Is this franchise still valuable to Fox and, if so, how will you restore it?
Mr. Liguori: We told [the producers] just open it up. Be fearless. Your audience absolutely will follow Jack Bauer anywhere. ... Now it's time to take some gloves off and take some risks with the show. Clearly, they did that and embraced that. The second thing we're doing is a kind of two-hour prequel. ... What that winds up doing is first and foremost reigniting not only our loyal audience but, I would contend, probably new audiences to spine-tingling thrills for "24" and really sets the table for our January launch coming out of the NFC playoffs. It's still by far and away, I think, one of the most creative if not the most creative concept on TV.
Ad Age: ABC and NBC have unveiled new "studios" designed to produce short-form content online. NBC has even established a pact with Omnicom to bring advertisers into the deal. We haven't heard lots from Fox on the digital front. Do you feel the need to start producing programs for web audiences only?
Mr. Liguori: The greatest usership [online] is going to come from doing the basics right first. You do the basics right by allowing your audience to know what your schedule is, know when originals and repeats are on and give them an opportunity to catch up on their shows via either a quick, easy way for them to stream an episode or give them a valuable recap ... and then give them access to the community that loves the show. ... From there, the goal is how you deepen that relationship, where you can provide additional content if there's a story that augments what is going on, or something that enthusiasts will really enjoy -- behind the scenes, bloopers, directors' comments, you name it.
When you move toward merely just stand-alone short-form content, I do think that it has some value in terms of experimentation, but rather than set up the notion of the studio and then go develop for the studio, we kind of work a little differently. Let's go to talk to creators and see what it is they want to do and determine the length and what the format of their pilot, their experiment, should be. We're being very adventurous on the animation front, setting up a number of deals where animators come in and produce some shorts or personalities or animatics. We're going to be taking a look at those and determine whether these should appear on Fox, in Hulu or in the middle of commercial pods. We don't feel compelled at this point to target only the internet as being a place for great short-form content.
I really have to focus on my base advertisers first and foremost. Look, going into the upfront, our philosophy is: "Let's go celebrate broadcast TV." We're the No. 1 network, because TV is the only place you can get this kind of reach. ... I want to keep our focus on job one, and right now there are a lot of dogs in that fight when it comes to broadcast TV.
Ad Age: How do you feel about Hulu, which includes several Fox shows in its lineup? When you approve programs these days, do you consider whether they might be distributed digitally? Do you see a need to do things to attract audiences who watch TV shows in non-TV ways?
Mr. Liguori: Everyone here ... looks at every show and every show concept through the prism of what are the digital extensions of that show. However, all the digital extensions of those shows will be null and void if in fact you don't do a good job on broadcast. You mention someone producing a show and even having it appear on the small, small screen. To us, we look at the number of widescreen TVs and plasma TVs and digital TVs that are being sold. It is by far and away the No. 1 consumer-electronic product that's moving right now. We utterly believe that people want to tune in to their good old-fashioned high-definition TV to watch broadcast TV as their primary viewing experience. Streaming online is a way to catch up. To us, we clearly want to make sure that viewing live is the No. 1 most satisfying experience that viewers can get. The best job we can do for that, the more fertile our other opportunities will be digitally.
Ad Age: Do you think there's a need to consult with advertisers earlier in the development process and get them to buy in to concepts before you approve a pilot or a series?
Mr. Liguori: All of us, all along in our program-development meetings, especially at Fox, with our 200-plus smaller meetings that follow the program-development meetings, offer advertisers the opportunity to get in on the ground floor, and we'll continue that. ... That was part of why NBC, while doing all of their press about new partnerships, why me and mine were actually out at meetings with advertisers doing just that. The timing was a little bit fortuitous on that front, so I just think a lot of that fanfare is something that has been going on. It's just repackaging by NBC. ... We have continued as we have for the past decade to work with advertisers early, to be transparent with them as to what our development is and to think creatively with many forms of brand integration to make sure that advertisers could maximize the impact of their messages.
Ad Age: "American Idol" remains perhaps the top draw on network TV, though it has seen some ratings erosion this season. Is there anything you need to do to shore up the program? And what is Fox doing to prepare for the inevitable day when "Idol" leaves the airwaves?
Mr. Liguori: One of the things that is increasingly encouraging is the vitality, passion and fidelity of all the show runners, the executive producers. ... Every one of them are embracing changes and are thirsty for improvement and truly believe that the biggest "Idol" of them all is yet to come. They aren't going to be satisfied until they break another Elvis, and really, truly, those are the kinds of conversations that take place. ... That being said, the show has completely defied the odds up until this point. There is no doubt that gravity has to take over, but what doesn't have to happen is creative lethargy, and that will not happen on this show. Those guys are too good at their craft to let that happen. ... Next year, there will be a bit more octane in the gas, and it's all going to come from the courage and creativity of the show runners.
In terms of preparing for the day when "American Idol" is not on our air, I'm pretty gray, but I anticipate that I'm going to be completely gray and probably hunched over and with a cane before I would want that day where it's not a part of our schedule.