New entertainment chairman shocked at pessimistic TV business

Broadcasting & Cable

By Claire Atkinson

In his first public comments since moving from the film business to television, new Fox Broadcasting entertainment chairman Peter Rice said he was shocked by the pessimism pervading the TV business.

Speaking on a Fox conference call with reporters Monday, Rice was asked about his observations since joining the business. He responded, “TV is the most powerful medium ever invented, it was shocking the amount of pessimism that’s been written about it.” Citing the Council for Research Excellence March Video Mapping Study, Rice noted that despite the proliferation of alternatives, the TV still takes a 99% share of viewing.

The new network entertainment chairman didn’t waste a moment jumping in to defend broadcast’s place against cable in the television universe. He said that while he was a fan of TNT’s The Closer, that it delivered 6.8 million viewers. “If it was a broadcast show, there are 75 shows that deliver more than that.” He continued, “Broadcast TV still remains supreme and that’s why we have to keep investing in creativity.”

Rice joined Fox and replaced Peter Liguori in a shake-up that followed the announcement that News Corp chief operating officer Peter Chernin’s exit in June. He has been on board at Fox for eight weeks and has spent most of that time reading TV industry data and meeting the management team and affiliates.

This former president of Slumdog Millionaire distributor Fox Searchlight, said that TV was a better business than the movies because of the compressed time schedule and its intensity. Some movie projects Rice said he had worked on for eight or nine years. Though he saw TV is a more difficult business given the need to find hits the size of Slumdog on a nightly basis. He compared American Idol, which might pull 26 million viewers, to an Iron Man or a Harry Potter movie opening. “They deliver that every night,” he said.

When asked to describe his greatest challenge in managing Fox, he responded, “It’s a high class problem for Fox. It is to not be complacent and to protect Fringe and Lie To Me and find good slots and promote them well and focus on storylines and get stability. I love the idea of So You Think You Can Dance in the fall, the perfect platform for Glee.” “It’s been an amazing eight weeks for me,” he added.

Separately, Jon Nesvig, president ad sales, and entertainment president Kevin Reilly, detailed a new advertising format called “Alive Air” which is aimed at retaining viewers through break. The concept will be detailed more fully at Fox’s upfront presentation Monday, though Reilly explained that Fox has been experimenting with “Alive Air” since Spring, describing it as something created by show producers to experiment with different elements of the show.

Commenting on last year’s upfront initiative, “Remote Free TV,” which offered advertisers the chance to avoid cluttered ad breaks in two shows Dollhouse and Fringe, in return for a 35% to 40% premium, Nesvig acknowledged, “I think it was a terrific experiment but week after week it was tough economically to make it work.” Though he added, the network wasn’t completely giving up on the concept and might use it strategically during the season.

When asked about the upfront environment, Nesvig added: “It’s a challenging environment for everybody. The main issue for us has really not been revenue for us, it has been the competitive viewing environment. We’ve had a lot of discussions and costs is a big focus but more importantly we feel comfortable engaging advertisers on the value we bring to the equation and we think we have a good story.”

Fox is pushing its investment in scripted programming on Friday nights – something that advertisers generally prefer over reality – and even sees an opening for Fringe on Thursdays, despite its slot against CBS’ CSI and ABC’s Grey’s. “Thursday is more open than it’s ever been,” said Reilly, “8 p.m. is a soft time period and Bones will continue to beat the competition. At 9 p.m. there are still two terrific shows but they’re down.” He described Fringe as attracting a huge amount of buzz and said that people were describing it as a Fox classic.

Not to be outdone in late night, Reilly got in a dig at the all white, all male line-up elsewhere and gave a plug to Fox’s new entrant Wanda Sykes, “It’s pretty monochromatic in late night,” he observed. “Wanda’s voice has been embraced lately.” He described the show as a topical one-hour round table, the perfect choice to sum up the week. Wanda Sykes will air Saturdays.

Reilly would not predict any audience number for new entrant Glee, which is getting a preview following American Idol tomorrow night, but said: “This is the largest grassroots screening in history…All eyes should not be on the ratings, it’s really a premiere screening.”

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