How does Fox keep scoring new TV shows from geniuses?
November 18, 2007 6:57 AM   Subscribe

How does Fox keep scoring new TV shows from geniuses?

Series after series of wonderful shows with dedicated fan support... completely mistreated, and then usually canceled, by Fox. Episodes out of order, not shown at all, timeslots changed on a whim. You all know what I'm talking about.

Yet, Fox keeps landing new shows from the likes of Matt Groening, Seth MacFarlane, and Joss Whedon.

How and why? Continual promises that this time it will be different? Truckloads of cash? What's really going on here? Is there some offer that Fox can make that the other networks can't match?
posted by Caviar to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've gotten the feeling that it's Fox or nothing for a lot of these creators. Look at the "risks" that other networks take... a million cop shows, a million doctor shows.

Fox is a mess but they greenlight more ambitious stuff than other studios. Also, Whedon has said in the past that their production people (as separate from the TV network people) are excellent to work with.
posted by selfnoise at 7:18 AM on November 18, 2007

I'm no expert, but I would say that Fox has a reputation for a revolving programming leadership. So some show creators might have issues with specific corporate officers, and once they leave, the problem is gone.
posted by Atreides at 7:19 AM on November 18, 2007

Probably either money or no other networks offered. I personally only care for one out of three of those you mentioned (Groening), so I think it's also a matter of those types of shows being more in Fox's niche and demographic.
posted by fructose at 7:19 AM on November 18, 2007

those are reruns.

fox gave groening a chance when animation beyond a couple seconds was basically unheard of. nobody had really done prime-time shows like that since the jetsons. fox was young, took risks after the tracy ullman show success and groening took it and ran. only in reruns do they mix them up.

and yes, there is a lot of dough involved. I think brooks and groening make somewhere near $1mil each per new episode, plus residuals. this, of course, wasn't the case in the beginning.

ask nikki finke this question.
posted by krautland at 7:41 AM on November 18, 2007

It is incredibly hard to sell a TV show, to say the least of sell it so well that the studio and the network both give you the push you need to have a good chance to be a hit.

This dictates two basic principles:

(1) you can't get to the prom without a date -- in most cases, the network that takes you is the only network that would take you. Maybe this doesn't apply to Groening, but it certainly does to a Whedon.

(2) you dance with the one that brung ya. The development and sale process takes a long time, many months in every case, a year or more in many if not most cases. You can't just shop around a TV show like you can a movie -- you try to hook up your baby idea with just the development executive at a studio and/or network who you think will believe in you, and you can't just bail out half way through when you've got a hot commodity and go to the competition.
posted by MattD at 7:51 AM on November 18, 2007

Response by poster: As a specific example, let's take Joss Whedon. Buffy (which I never watched) was on WB. It seemed to do well there. He moved over to Fox for Firefly, which they treated like absolute shit, and then canceled. But now he's starting Dollhouse with Fox as well. Perhaps they just made him a great deal in this case, but it seems like this pattern repeats itself. His shows have a strong track record of gathering a very dedicated fanbase. Is that worth nothing to another network?
posted by Caviar at 8:02 AM on November 18, 2007

The simple answer to your question is that those geniuses know that if their show has decent ratings, it won't get canceled. Well, actually, the simplest answer is "this is a case of confirmation bias," because Fan Favorite Cult Shows get canceled everywhere. But I digress.

I was at Fox for five years, but left long before Dollhouse, so it's hard to say how it got greenlit. I can tell you that the stakes were much lower for Joss Whedon at The WB. Buffy never got great ratings, but they were good enough to cut it at a fledgling network. (Plus, it was a media darling that grabbed The WB a ton of free publicity.) Fox president Gail Berman had a longstanding relationship with Joss Whedon and believed in him when others didn't; her tenure at Fox was pretty rocky and she needed Firefly to be an instant hit. It wasn't. RIP Firefly.

There are other issues; Fox has a lot of internal identity problems. It would really like to be the network version of FX (which is why shows like K-Ville get on the air) but really, it can't escape its COPS and AMW past.

Is there some offer that Fox can make that the other networks can't match?

Keep in mind, many times the alternative to Fox is ... nothing. It's not like CBS is dying for a Seth McFarlane show.
posted by roger ackroyd at 8:30 AM on November 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

Dollhouse was dreamt up by Whedon specifically for Eliza Dukshu, who has an exclusive development contract with Fox she just signed last August. So it's not about a great deal, in that case. And while Whedon's earlier shows were broadcast on WB and then UPN, Fox did the production. I imagine that has something to do with Fox handling production of the original Buffy film.
posted by jbrjake at 8:31 AM on November 18, 2007

His shows have a strong track record of gathering a very dedicated fanbase. Is that worth nothing to another network?

It's worth a heck of a lot less than the fans think it is. I would have thought fans would realize this by now.
posted by grouse at 8:35 AM on November 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

I don't want to derail a tread by saying, "the don't hire geniuses," but surely this is a deeply subjective call. I know the shows you mentioned are popular, but so are many shows on other networks -- they're just not shows you're a fan of.

What I'm saying is that your question is skewed by your bias. It's like you're a fan of Big Macs and you're wondering why McDonald's happens to have such wonderful food when other restaurant don't. You're fulfilling you're own prophesy.

From what I can see, ALL networks cancel shows when they don't feel those shows are profitable. It's shameful that they lead audiences on to expect arc-endings that they don't deliver, but the bottom-line rules.

The recent shows that I think are great happen to be "Deadwood," "Madmen," "The Sopranos," and "The Office." I think "Lost" and "Galactica" are very entertaining. How many of those shows are on Fox?
posted by grumblebee at 9:40 AM on November 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

A different way to look at it:

Matt Groening: Did the Simpsons, which was hugely popular, then Futurama, which never was but still lasted a few seasons because of Groening's involvement.

Seth MacFarlane: Did Family Guy, which was cancelled, then did American Dad, because any show is better than none. Who else other than Fox is going to show animation, and give it any chance at all?

Joss Whedon: Has never had a hit show. Buffy and Angel barely hung on for most of their runs. Then his next show wasn't popular at all, and didn't last a season. And the movie tanked. He's lucky to get offers at all.
posted by smackfu at 9:58 AM on November 18, 2007

grumblebee nails it. You're skewing your 'results'. Joss Whedon is only a genius to people who like Joss Whedon. To anyone else (myself included) he's the anti-genius. However, Whedon fans seems to hang out together (and online) and their world revolves around such shows and they assume it's a given that they're great shows and hits. They're neither; you just happen to like them.

That said, don't worry, as grumblebee says, all networks behave like Fox (okay, the out of order thing was pretty fucked). I happen to think Deadwood is the greatest drama *ever*. However, it was cancelled before it was complete.

Oh wait, "It's not cancelled. It's HBO."
posted by dobbs at 10:19 AM on November 18, 2007

Twin Peaks was canceled by ABC and Lynch still shot Mulholland Dr as a pilot for the same network.
posted by apetpsychic at 11:34 AM on November 18, 2007

I think one key factor is that FOX does not have a 10 o'clock show like the big three. The triumvirate gets a lot of revenue from having hit dramas and newsmagazines in that time slot, and this forces some very conservative approaches to programming. You have to have a lead-in (a show with a big audience who doesn't switch channels on a whim) and you have to have a particular rhythm and synergy to the other programs. FOX has a little more freedom to be experimental and edgy (or faux-edgy at least).

As to why they keep coming back, many of those producers have multi-pilot deals with the network. When you do that you know -- both sides know -- that only a few of the ones you throw on the wall will stick. But it gives the producers the chance to try different ideas, even for just a little while. This is probably going to attract these more individualistic talents.
posted by dhartung at 12:50 PM on November 18, 2007

I have anything to add about FOX except that whoever decided to give the guys from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia a shot has my respect.

That show is really really good.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 2:35 PM on November 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Twin Peaks was canceled by ABC and Lynch still shot Mulholland Dr as a pilot for the same network.

Almost a Lynchian sort of revenge, wasn't it?
posted by gimonca at 4:10 PM on November 18, 2007

I call this phenominon the Tim Minear curse. Let's look at his track record as producer of shows on FOX:
  • Firefly (executive producer) - cancelled; 12 of 15 episodes aired
  • Wonderfalls (executive producer) - cancelled; 4 of 13 episodes aired
  • The Inside (executive producer) - cancelled; 7 of 13 episodes aired
  • Standoff (consulting producer) - cancelled but all 18 episodes aired
  • Drive (executive producer) - cancelled after only 4 episodes, 6 produced
I'm sure as an outsider to the industry I don't have a complete picture of how these things work, but to me it seems that FOX has a particularly bad history of being especially impatient in the "give a show a chance to accumulate a fanbase" department. In the first two (Wonderfalls and Firefly) the DVD sales did very well and lead to spinoff movies for both, which just seems to indicate that if FOX had let things ripen on the vine a little more they would have gotten better ratings. And in the case of Drive it was laughable that they packed up shop so early -- the show had barely even aired and it was already cancelled. They didn't even follow up on the idea of airing episodes 5 and 6 during the July 4 holiday, they relegated them to webisodes.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:50 PM on November 18, 2007

Take this marketing company's writeup (titled "How Fox Killed Firefly..."), which puts it more succinctly than I could:

Hmmm. That article's predictions turned out to be so wrong - Serenity underperformed even average genre movies. The bulk of that article reeks of fannishness so I can't really trust it. What killed Serenity and Firefly for me what that the pacing was so uneven - when it was good, it was very good. But it usually had these huge flabby bits and apparently directionless editing. Also, Firefly had the worst opening for any scifi series except Enterprise.

I think Fox is just a little less sclerotic because it's younger and smaller and has no real solid, multi-generational hits. I spoke one time at a party to one of the people doing Arrested Development. She told me that although its numbers "weren't bad", its cost structure was so way high with all the cutscenes that there was basically a zero probability that Fox could get advertisers to pay enough for the show to become a going concern. Maybe Fox has a more immediate accounting system than other studios that factor in long-term DVD and syndication revenue or similar?
posted by meehawl at 5:46 PM on November 18, 2007

Joss Whedon: Has never had a hit show. Buffy and Angel barely hung on for most of their runs.

This, and similar comments by other posters, fails to appreciate those shows' value to two networks that were struggling to find an identity and an audience. Buffy put the WB on the map. It was the WB's first breakout hit, when they needed a hit very badly. It broke that network's ratings records. It brought in new advertisers. It established a whole new demographic niche (teen/college girls) for them which they successfully exploited and expanded with a host of followups including Angel. It was in fact so widely recognized as their biggest asset that UPN was willing to ridiculously overpay to buy the show, and even caved in to accepting Roswell in a package deal, all in hopes of imitating the success that it had made for WB.

Yes, compared to the 100 or so shows that air per year, Whedon's shows have always lingered near the bottom of the overall list. But that's because they were on networks that weren't available in anywhere near the number of households NBC/CBS/ABC had. From the WB's small-fry perspective, Whedon was definitely important.

Meanwhile the Fox Network's sibling company, 20th Century Fox Television, was the Buffy/Angel production company. Their parent company knew exactly how profitable both shows had been for Fox Television andWB, and wanted to keep the whole pie to themselves next time. Which explains why Fox Network wanted Firefly, and perhaps why they had unrealistic expectations for it to be a success out of the gate.

For his part, the appeal of Fox Network probably had a lot to do with it being headed at the time by longtime colleague Gail Berman, the very person who'd personally sold the WB on Buffy (and him) in the first place and exec produced both shows.

On the WB's final night of existance, it ran a 5 hour tribute to the shows that had been most important in the network's history; 3 of those 5 hours were Whedon's creations. Like him or not, it's foolish to imagine that he was never an important player or that he's never had a hit. "Hit" is measured in dollars, not viewership. The shows have been off the air for years, yet the Buffyverse is still raking in money for Fox Television, through merchandising, comics, licensing, syndication, etc. A sustainable income stream like that is every exec's wet dream.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:01 PM on November 18, 2007

Joss Whedon: Has never had a hit show. Buffy and Angel barely hung on for most of their runs.

That's not quite right. If you view these things in absolute terms, no Joss Whedon has not had a hit show- like E.R.

However, Buffy was the centrepiece of the WB's lineup for many many years as they tried to outfox FOX in appealing to the younger demo. Buffy was on the cover of national magazines, there were toys and sountracks and heavy-promotion.

During it's sixth year (or so) Buffy was cut from the WB and immediately signed by the struggling UPN. Media types and industry analysts claimed it as a triumph for UPN.

Buffy was on the air for almost seven years. Very few shows make it that long. I'd be surprised to see Lost make it to seven seasons.
posted by willie11 at 8:01 PM on November 18, 2007

Ugh. Buffy was on for 6 seasons and switched networks after its fourth. From Wikipedia.

The WB (1997–2001)
UPN (2001–2003)
posted by willie11 at 8:05 PM on November 18, 2007

willie111, Buffy was never cut/cancelled by the WB. They fought a bidding war with UPN over it and lost. It drove up the price so much that UPN wound up paying $2.3 million per episode for Buffy, plus guaranteed pickups of Angel and Roswell (all owned by the same production studio) if WB cancelled them.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 8:18 PM on November 18, 2007

And in the case of Drive it was laughable that they packed up shop so early -- the show had barely even aired and it was already cancelled.

But this is normal behavior. On CBS last season,Smith lasted three episodes, and it was replaced by 3 Lbs which lasted three episodes. Fox actually puts more effort in here, because they have a smaller schedule and fewer dramas. At the moment, Fox has 4, CBS has 13. If you were a producer, who do you think would put more effort into your new show that's not going to be in the top 10? People complain about meddling, but meddling shows they care... real indifference is cancellation.
posted by smackfu at 5:51 AM on November 19, 2007

Um, Willie11 - Buffy had seven seasons, and switched networks after its fifth year.
posted by crossoverman at 2:37 AM on November 20, 2007

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