Fox execs speak — on ‘American Idol,’ ‘Dollhouse’ and more

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Fox has a lot at stake next month. Thanks in large part to ‘American Idol,’ America’s most-watched show, the network has for four straight seasons been No. 1 in the ad-friendly demographic of adults ages 18 to 49 — a reign that’s beginning to summon memories of NBC’s extraordinary run atop prime time in the 1980s and ‘90s.

But the TV business is changing and so is ‘Idol’ as producers attempt to renew the show creatively and halt a modest ratings dip last season. Fox is also unveiling two new dramas: ‘Lie to Me,’ with Tim Roth as a ‘human lie detector,’ and Joss Whedon’s latest sci-fi outing, the much-anticipated ‘Dollhouse.’


Channel Island asked Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori and Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly about the challenges of the months ahead. An edited version:

Channel Island: You’re changing ‘Idol’ at a crucial time for the show. Last year the ratings were off, and the show’s headed into Season 8.

Liguori: Last year we were down 9%. But toward the end of the season, our ratings were every bit as strong as they were the year before.

Reilly: Down 9% on a 7-year-old show: That becomes a headline about decline. But very few shows that age can remain that strong.

Liguori: Kara (DioGuardi, the new fourth judge) is someone who is adding a new dynamic. She can certainly go toe-to-toe with Simon Cowell on a musical basis, given her experience. We have a bit of a dynamic of girls versus guys (among the judges). Having seen her in action, she really brings her game and causes everyone else to raise theirs.

In terms of making tweaks to, let’s call it the Top 36 [contesants], it’s a little bit of going back to the future. We’ve done that in the past, and it really has worked. It somewhat heightens the drama around those Hollywood episodes.

CI: Many people were surprised that you didn’t put Whedon’s ‘Dollhouse’ in one of those post-'Idol’ spots, instead opting for the relatively sleepy zone of Fridays. Why put such a buzzed-about show on that night?

Liguori: It’s a night where there’s not a hell of a lot of competition. So we’re able to get the show on there. We’re able to allow the show to grow. The expectations may be slightly lower for its performance.

Reilly: By nature, this show has a particular kind of audience. That’s just what Joss does. You could say, why ‘Lie to Me’ [on Wednesdays] after ‘Idol’? I think that’s a broader show. You don’t want to put in something with more of a sci-fi bent.

Liguori: We think Tim is a breakout television character. We also feel that there’s some aspiration to this show, especially in these times. This is a character and a team that is basically out to call people on their lies.

CI: On Tuesdays after ‘Idol,’ you’ll have ‘Fringe,’ a show that premiered with surprisingly low numbers back in early September.

Reilly: We were never worried!

Liguori: Because of baseball, we tend to premiere early. And it is swimming upstream. The general audience isn’t necessarily at the ready to sit down and start their fall TV viewing.

Reilly: This year there were two other factors involved. We had the presidential debates, which also propelled us to come on early. [And] the Olympics scored with the audience this year. It’s very hard for anything else to really get any awareness. Everything we had heard and the feedback we had got was that people really liked the show.

CI: On Mondays, you’ve had ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,’ which has struggled for traction in its second season and is about to move to Fridays to join ‘Dollhouse.’ Why’s ‘Sarah Connor’ so ratings-challenged?

Reilly: Overall, the numbers are not where we hoped they’d be. And yet it has a very, very loyal core audience. Ultimately, moving it to Fridays, pairing it with ‘Dollhouse,’ felt like a cohesive strategy, two very compatible shows. Hopefully the Joss loyalists will show up.

CI: Fox’s Sunday animated lineup has been relatively stable for years, but a lot of fans were disappointed to see ‘King of the Hill’ finally retired. What was the thinking there?

Reilly: Just because ‘The Simpsons’ has set a 20-year bar doesn’t mean anything. What did we end up doing on ‘King,’ Peter?

Liguori: Thirteen seasons.

Reilly: How many shows go 13 seasons?

One of our real priorities in the last year is to really double our commitment to animation. We’ll be starting ‘Sit Down Shut Up’ this spring, that Mitch Hurwitz [of ‘Arrested Development’] created.

Liguori: That Sunday animated block is a signature Fox block. We’re always looking to refresh it.

CI: ‘House’ has suffered a bit in the ratings this year because you put it on at 8 p.m. as a lead-in for ‘Fringe.’ Why do that to your highest-rated scripted show?

Reilly: If you look at the cycles of the networks over the years, these are the years — when a network is consistently at the top of the game — where if you don’t make strategic moves, you actually get hemmed in by your own success and then you’re just watching those shows ride down. Most networks begin to move shows that are already in decline, further accelerating their decline, and they haven’t actually platformed anything new coming out of it.

Believe me, it would have been a lot easier, and frankly we’d have a higher overall rating, if we’d left ‘House’ alone. But with a finite amount of opportunities, particularly in the fall, this was the year we all decided, Let’s use our assets, ‘House’ and ‘Idol,’ to feed some new assets for the future.

— Scott Collins