The Fox station group is adding more than 45 additional hours of news in 11 markets this year, but, say group execs, that doesn’t mean its interest in first-run shows is waning. On the contrary, says CEO Jack Abernethy (above), the group is depending on first-run more than ever and will be testing a “full slate” of new shows this summer and fall, including a dating show, a game show developed in house and a video clip show from Warner Bros.
The Fox TV Stations last month announced that it was expanding news in 11 markets, gobbling up more than 45 hours now filled with syndicated shows of one kind or another.
But, says group CEO Jack Abernethy, the expansion will not appreciably diminish its big appetite for first-run programs.
In many cases, the news is replacing second runs of syndicated shows, he says. “We are even more dependent than ever on syndicators that want to do first run. It’s extremely important that they stay in the game.”
The Fox stations have always had to rely heavily on syndication as the Fox network delivers only two hours each weeknight of primetime fare. ABC, by contrast, now programs 12 hours a day for its affiliates.
For years, in addition to first-run, the stations could count on popular off-network sitcoms for prime access and latenight, but their number has dwindled in recent years. The networks are not producing as many and audiences are not watching as much as they once did.
And the stations’ scheduling problems will soon be exacerbated by the loss of Harry, the Harry Connick Jr. variety hour from NBCU that couldn’t find enough of an audience in two seasons to justify its high cost.
So, Fox is responding the only way it can, by turning to news, locally produced news, and entertainment programs and first-run shows, some produced in-house, some by outsiders.
Abernethy says that the producers and syndicators are heeding the call and that Fox expects to test “a full slate” of new first-run shows this summer as has been Fox practice in recent years in hopes that one or two catch a spark.
Such testing, which typically involves airing the show in several markets for several weeks, has yielded solid shows for Fox, including Wendy Williams, Page Six TV, The Real, Dish Nation and TMZ Live.
Among the shows expected to get a tryout this year are The Hustle, a half-hour video clip show from Warner Bros. that, says Fox programming chief Frank Cicha, dispenses with the chatty host in favor of a “clearer presentation.”
It’s the kind of show that will play in many time periods, he adds.
According to Cicha, Fox’s in-house development shop has so far come up with two for testing: a dating show, Phone Swap, and a game show 25 Words or Less.
Another source of shows is the individual Fox stations, and Cicha says he may give The Q, a local variety-talk show featuring Quincy Harris, produced at WTXF Philadelphia, another shot. The show, which launched in September 2106, flunked its first audition last summer.
Fox’s news expansion and its internal development are not causing any alarm from outside distributors.
“Jack is a big supporter of first run and he has a lot of time to fill,” says Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which has the deal with Fox to test The Hustle. “He has to continue to be focused on first run.”
He says Abernethy is correct in saying he cannot count on sitcoms anymore. Warner Bros.-produced Young Sheldon, now a hit on CBS, should have a successful run in syndication, but there isn’t much else of that high caliber in the queue, he says.
Roseanne, on ABC, is the No. 1 sitcom in prime, he says, but it’s a short-run series (13 episodes a season) and the earlier series upon which it is based never did particularly well in syndication.
Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury, a steady supplier of programs to Fox, says the station group is the “least of our problems.”
Between the Fox network and their duopoly stations, Fox has a lot of hours to fill, each one an opportunity for enterprising programmers, he says.
“I don’t blame them for doing lots of news. It’s not like we, the syndicators, have provided great programs in the last 10 years. It’s been very much hit and miss.”
Marcus’s bottom line: “Fox is our best customer. It is probably every syndicator’s best customer.”
Although summer has been test season for Fox, Cicha says the demise of Harry is presenting an opportunity.
In addition to late July and August, he says, “it might be possible to do something in September, October, November because we will have a little bit more flexibility because we didn’t sort of run out and say: ‘Here is the Harry replacement and that’s it.’
“It might be nice to look at something at a time when there is more promotion overall, when everything else is in first run. As much as people will say there is too much going on, the fact of the matter is our lineups will be in a better place just because everything will be back.”
Eventually, he says, he would like to be able to test shows throughout the year.
Unlikely to be on Cicha’s test schedule are shows with big names and attendant big budgets like Harry.
“The problem with those kinds of things is most times people don’t want to test them. They don’t want to tell the talent that they are not the greatest thing since sliced bread, so they want to go national launch or nothing.
“Believe me, we have had plenty of big names walk through that we have suggested that to and they have scoffed at us. ‘Oh, we can’t do that. My client is so big that we can’t do those kinds of things.’ So, no, I don’t think a Harryesque talent will come out of this.”
That is not to say that what Abernethy calls “big and bold NATPE launches” with two-year licensing commitments will not happen outside of the Fox laboratory, Cicha says.
“As long as there are talents that want to do it and studios that are willing to back something like that, we are going to see big projects come through our door.
“Now there might be fewer studios that are willing to do that, but I don’t think by any means that that is over, and one of the reasons is the business is screaming for one.
“It’s not like there are 15 of them out there and they are all working. You know, people do realize that if they can crack this, it can be a very, very nice business.”
While encouraging first-run syndication, the Fox executives understand its limitations. That’s why they are also increasing the news hours.
In addition to straight news, they are nurturing local personality-driven news programs that pick up where the late newscasts leave off. Such programs include The Final Five at WTTG Washington, The Isiah Factor at KRIV Houston and a sports wrapup show that is in the works at KDFW Dallas.
“The idea of expanding programming based around news talent is something that we like because then you are not doing just the same news show every hour or every half hour,” Cicha says. “That becomes less compelling at a certain point depending on the market.”
Ideally, such shows would be strong enough to play in other markets, but so far none has shown that ability, Cicha says. “That’s OK too, as long as they work in their own market. We are not going to push stuff out [just] because we can.”
Abernethy acknowledges that more news is part of a strategy to make Fox stations “fresher, more live.”
With the latest expansion, he says, six stations will offer news from 10 to midnight and another five from 10 to 11:30 p.m. Typically, Fox stations in the east air one hour of news at 10 p.m.
But he and Cicha stress that no syndicator should be discouraged.
Says Cicha: “It’s a great opportunity, particularly for unaffiliated studios, to come up with some ideas and bring them in because we have shelf space. We definitely do.”