TCA 2015: Fox network chiefs acknowledge 'uphill battle'

TCA 2015: Fox network chiefs acknowledge 'uphill battle'
Chairmen and CEO's of Fox Television Group Dana Walden, left, and Gary Newman in September, 2014. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Fox's new television team stepped into the spotlight Saturday to articulate their mission: broaden the appeal of the languishing network while still creating bold and risky programming.

Last spring, Fox's battle-scarred entertainment chief Kevin Reilly stepped down after seven years -- leaving a management gap. Longtime Fox TV studio captains Gary Newman and Dana Walden persuaded their bosses to let them run both the Fox production studio and TV network.


And there is plenty of work to do.

"We are well aware that we are the fourth-place network and our ratings are challenged," said Newman, now chairman and CEO of the Fox Television Group.

"We know that it is going to be an uphill battle to turn this network around," he said.

Fox trails industry leaders CBS, NBC and ABC -- mustering 6.2 million viewers in prime-time (nearly 5 million a night fewer than CBS) -- and has developed a reputation for launching programs with great promise only to watch them rapidly unravel creatively or simply lose steam in the ratings.

Saturday's session at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour in Pasadena was something of a coming-out party for Walden and Newman.

The pair have been professional partners for 15 years as joint heads of 20th Century Fox Television, the home of such culture-defining shows as "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "Homeland," "24," "New Girl" and "Glee."

But to many of the TCA regulars, the pair were just part of the furniture -- members of the army of TV executives, publicists and agents who stand in a crowd in the back of the room during panel discussions.

Walden, who also is chairman and CEO of the Fox Television Group, made a point to say that she and Newman are far from newbies.

"This is probably the 30th TCA that I've attended. I know all of you from the backs of your heads, so it is very nice to be seeing your faces," Walden said from the stage in the front of the ballroom at the Langham Huntington Hotel.

Still, Newman and Walden seemed ill at ease at times -- occasionally referring to talking points printed on an index-card -- and when a Pennsylvania reporter asked tough questions about whether Fox had trepidation about getting into business with Terrence Howard, the star of "Empire," because of allegations of domestic violence in his private life.

"He is so professional, he is so hard-working and he has been a great partner for us.  Our experience working with Terrence has been excellent," Walden said.

The network, she said, wasn't aware of Howard's troubles until December.

The reporter persisted, saying a Google search would have uncovered reports of violence and restraining orders dating back several years.

Walden again deflected the matter, saying, "It just didn't come into the conversation."


Howard also is a star of Fox's high-profile project for summer, "Wayward Pines," from writer-director-executive producer M. Night Shyamalan.

The newly minted hit "Empire" has been one of the few bright spots in the network's uneven season. The hip-hop-infused prime-time soap, created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, roared to life this month by attracting an impressive 10 million viewers.

Last summer, Walden and Newman quickly identified "Empire" (produced by 20th Century Fox) as a cornerstone of the network's rebuilding strategy. The most recent episode delivered a 4.0 rating among 18- to 49-year-old viewers, a key demographic for advertisers -- making it one of the biggest new television hits of the season.

The pair announced they have ordered a second season of "Empire," as well as a second season of Fox's fall hit (from Warner Bros.) "Gotham."  Fox also ordered a third season of the comedy "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" (Universal Television).

The future of "Sleepy Hollow" remains uncertain -- although Walden acknowledged that it was difficult to pull off the fantasy-period piece from literature -- but "the show got a little overly serialized this past season."

Newman said Fox was in discussions with the "24" team about another run, although the company had nothing to announce on that front.

The company also would like to resume its partnership with Simon Cowell, the music executive best known in the U.S. as the tart-tongued judge on the early seasons of "American Idol."  Cowell's follow-up singing competition "X-Factor" sputtered, over-shadowed by NBC's stronger broad-based hit "The Voice."

"We have been meeting with Simon. We like Simon very much, and we would love to be in business with him," Newman said.

Twitter: @MegJamesLAT