Nearly one year since being named president of entertainment at Fox, David Madden is looking back at one of the most confounding TV seasons, while looking ahead to one of the most anticipated.
The past season, Fox had broadcasting’s biggest hit. The Brian Grazer-produced Empire starring Terrence Howard as a music mogul debuted on Jan. 7 and built its audience steadily through the March 18 finale — a rare feat in TV these days. Among scripted programs, it finished first in the 18-49 demo and fourth in total viewers.
Yet, Fox still ended the season in fourth place.
Next season, the anticipation comes from the return of Empire (with 18 episodes instead of 12) coupled with the celebratory 15th and final season of American Idol, which at its peak was TV’s most-watched show.
Madden, who was the head of Fox Television Studios before moving to his current post, spoke with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Kevin Downey about what went right and wrong in his first season, carrying on Fox’s risk-taking tradition and the differences in producing for cable and broadcasting.
Madden also spoke about the big swings that Fox is taking this fall and its plans to make each episode of American Idol in its final season feel like a standalone TV special.
An edited transcript:
Fox had a great season in some respects, but still ended up No. 4 in primetime. What were your biggest challenges and successes in your first year at the helm?
I don’t want to repeat what is said all the time about Empire, but no one could have predicted its level of success. It was the greatest gift we could have gotten.
But Empire wasn’t the only gift we got. We are really pleased with the launch of Gotham. We’re in the midst of figuring out what we think will be a very exciting second season.
And Last Man On Earth was a big risk for us. It was a scary thing to do in the broadcast half-hour space. [Editor’s note: Will Forte stars as the last man on earth who slowly discovers a few oddball characters still roaming the planet.]
But the audience found the show and they like it. They watch it live and they watch it really aggressively on our multiplatform spaces.
Early on, before the fall season started, [CEOs] Dana Walden and Gary Newman and I talked a lot about how we could come out of the season with one success that we’d feel proud of. But, instead of one, we came out of the season with three successes, including one that redefined the current nature of broadcast TV. We’re thrilled about that.
So, what were the biggest challenges?
Well, not everything we did worked. [The Endemol reality show] Utopia was a big, scary risk that didn’t work for a number of reasons. Red Band Society and other shows didn’t work. We’re not perfect, but we learned a lot.
We’re not going into this season expecting to find another success on the level of Empire, but we are going into the season very hopeful and optimistic.
You mentioned the sitcom Last Man On Earth. Creatively, it’s not a traditional sitcom for a broadcast TV network, but it’s a hit. What does that say about Fox and TV viewers, if anything?
Fox throughout its history has blended the traditional with the subversive. That goes back to the network’s very first shows. There’s a level of daring that we can’t cross. At the same time, the audience expects to see shows that try different tones and different forms. Last Man felt daring to us.
There were moments when it scared us. But we’re a network that takes risks. So, we are able to do a serialized comedy like this with a character who’s a little bit misanthropic.
Not every show we do will get as risky as Last Man On Earth. But it’s our job to try new things. Our audience wants us to show them something new and something different. It’s our obligation to do that for our audience.
When we fail, which we do, we want to do that by taking risks rather than by playing it too safe.
The sitcoms you have coming up this fall, like Grandfathered with John Stamos, suggest a shift in focus away from female-led comedies like New Girl and The Mindy Project. What’s the strategy behind that?
It’s not by design. We made a lot of comedy pilots and those are the ones we thought were the best.
While Grandfathered and The Grinder with Rob Lowe have male leads, these are female-friendly guys. These are the types of shows that all viewers will embrace. These are comedies geared to both genders.
In recent years, male led-comedies or ensemble comedies like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory have performed better in off-network syndication than female-led sitcoms. Is that something you factor into picking shows for primetime?
My bosses Dana and Gary work for both the network and the studio [20th Century Fox Studios]. Most of, although not all of, the comedies we air are made in our studio. When a studio does own a comedy, there is more discussion about the entirety of the economics of a show.
As the network’s entertainment president, my focus is getting people to watch our shows, whether that’s live on our network, delayed viewed on our network or on one of our multiplatform options.
Whether or not a show goes into syndication is really something that Dana and Gary focus on.
Speaking of sitcoms, Seth MacFarlane’s midseason animated comedy Bordertown had people at the Fox upfront presentation last month laughing out loud. I imagine that it’s one of Fox’s most anticipated shows. Is it?
The Simpsons, Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers are remarkable animated shows. The Simpsons and [MacFarlane’s] Family Guy are obviously groundbreaking animated shows that were game changers for network TV.
We’d love a fourth animated show that’s successful for us. We’ve obviously had success with Seth MacFarlane before.
It’s an audacious show. But animated shows take time to find their audience, as with Bob’s Burgers. You have to be patient. But, at the same time, Bordertown has a lot of that “I can’t believe they just said that” quality of Family Guy.
We love the show, but like Family Guy we’re not expecting it to be an overnight success.
As you know from your time at Fox TV Studios, shows like FX’s The Americans that are dark and gritty can be successful. But dark shows like Fox’s The Following on broadcast aren’t. Why not?
I spent the previous whole bunch of years at Fox Studios where I was responsible for shows like The Americans and The Killing. I was that guy. That’s the type of shows we made.
I am very proud of those shows, but I don’t think any of them would do well on broadcast TV.
Every cable network wants their Breaking Bad or True Detective. But on broadcast, you can’t compete with that level of darkness. And we shouldn’t try to. The kind of drama that works on broadcast is entertaining, fun and not afraid to include humor. To us, that’s open turf.
When we define our dramas for ourselves and the writing community, we want our dramas to be fun. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be smart, thematic, character based or complicated. But it does have to be fundamentally entertaining.
A show like Empire is just fun to watch. So is Gotham, The X-Files, Sleepy Hollow and I believe so are the new dramas that we will launch.
FX, as you know, has had a lot of success with the anthology series American Horror Story from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. Will their Scream Queens on Fox be less dark and gruesome than AHS?
Scream Queens is our big swing this fall. It’s our boldest new show. But Scream Queens is consciously on the part of Ryan Murphy and his partners a mashup of [their show] Glee and American Horror Story. It’s about 50% of each.
It looks like Glee. The color palette is the opposite of American Horror Story. It’s a very bright show. Yet, it has a lot of horror in it. But, opposed to American Horror Story, which can be grisly, this horror is more in the vein of the Scream movies, where it’s fun and playful, while you sometimes have to cover your eyes.
It’s inherently entertaining. The dialog is snarky, like on Glee. I think people will love it.
What can you reveal about American Idol’s final season? Will Simon Cowell return to the judges’ table?
We have had so many meetings already about making the last season special.
When we decided it was time for the show to end, it was really important to everyone involved that it comes to an end with dignity, class and that we give everyone a chance to appreciate it again.
We have a lot of different ideas, many of which will obviously be surprises.
But, basically, we are looking to bring back as many people from prior seasons as possible, whether it’s judges, past winners or people who participated in the show.
Ryan Seacrest, Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban will still be the heart of the show. But we will bring back faces from season one on.
It’s in the early stages, but we don’t want to miss a beat.
We are going to treat each episode as if it were an American Idol special. We’ll have all the competition that we’ve had in previous seasons. But, at the same time, each episode will have a moment when people say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe he or she came back.”