One week into the new television season and it’s clear that Fox is in for a long and grueling one. For the first time in fifteen years, Fox won’t have "American Idol" to give it a ratings boost in January, and it looks like the troubled network will need it. It finished a distant fourth in total viewership last week—not a good start to the fall season.
Based on the Live + Same day data from Nielsen for Sept. 19-25, Fox drew an audience of 3.64 million viewers, also coming in fourth among the key adult 18-49 and adult 25-54 demographics. Compared to last year’s opening week, Fox suffered its largest loss, 36%, in adults 18-34.
Aside from a decent Wednesday, which houses the revival of "Lethal Weapon" into season three of "Empire," Fox is struggling across the board. Without the reliable midseason lift of "American Idol," the network is feeling the effects of its over-dependence on the singing competition and its lack of planning for a future without it.
New drama entries "Pitch" and "The Exorcist" were barely sampled. New Sunday comedy "Son of Zorn," a hybrid of live action and animation, didn’t benefit from being positioned between "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" (both shows are fading). Monday dramas "Gotham" and "Lucifer" finished a distant fourth on the night, as did Tuesday’s anemic combination of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "New Girl" and "Scream Queens." And sophomore drama "Rosewood" is not strong enough to anchor Thursday.
Given the large number of problem spots throughout the week, I have a few suggestions that can help get Fox’s fall schedule back in the game.
Make better use of "Empire." I would shift "Empire" to Wednesday at 8 p.m. leading into upcoming new musical drama "Star" from "Empire" creator Lee Daniels. Instead, Fox plans to air "Star" out of new drama "Shots Fired," in place of "Empire" while it takes a midseason break. Assuming fans of "Empire" will take to this soapy tale of three aspiring singers in Atlanta, the plan for next season should be to position "Star" on Thursday and promote it during "Empire" on Wednesday for a perfect segue. I would also throw in multiple crossover appearances into the two shows to ensure the audience samples "Star."
Stop splitting shows into half seasons. While cable started this trend as a way to aggressively program the summer and remain in the game in the traditional September to May TV season, half seasons only seem to work on a broadcast network with reality fare like CBS’ "Survivor," which offers two completely new editions each season. Fox needs to stop breaking up the seasons of scripted dramas like "Gotham" and "Empire" into two parts for fall and spring and realize that continuation each week is the key to building momentum. If you take something away, viewers quickly lose interest.
Be more strategic with scheduling. While I certainly understand the challenge of programming a network when its only has one hit show, "Empire," it was a particularly bonehead move for Fox to bury "The Exorcist" on low HUT-level Friday out of tired "Hell’s Kitchen." Wouldn’t it be more logical to pair it with "Scream Queens" for a night of horror programming?
Face it…animation is dying on Sunday. Fox made a name for itself in the early years with "The Simpsons," which, like parent sketch comedy "The Tracey Ullman Show," was never afraid to push the envelope creativity. Ditto for "Family Guy" and a potpourri of other animated series. But at some point you need to know when to simply let go, and introducing "Son of Zorn" (and upcoming live action comedy "Making History" in midseason) and sandwiching it in between the two is a recipe for failure. To move ahead, Fox should retool Sunday and drop some of the animation. It should deviate from the norm and position a crime solver like upcoming "APB" on Sunday, instead of airing it in place of "Lucifer" in the Monday 9 p.m. in midseason. Since "Lucifer" is not one of the network’s biggest problems at present, why confuse the audience by taking it off air and then bringing it back later?
Give Gordon Ramsey a day off. Yes, I know, the loudmouth restauranteur and TV personality is the face behind "Hotel Hell," "Masterchef," "Masterchef Junior," "Kitchen Nightmares" and "Hell’s Kitchen." But Ramsay is basically the Homer Simpson of reality…no one is really watching him anymore.
Get back into game shows. There is nothing like a good game show to ignite interest. I vividly recall the mistake Fox made by prematurely canceling "Greed" in 2000 at the beginning of ABC’s "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" mania. I still feel the need for "Greed," and I bet I am not the only one. So, why not give us a revival or think of something new to satisfy game show fans that have nothing right now in primetime? While I would normally not recommend a revival, when you sink this low, you have to think of all possibilities.
Bring back "American Idol"…sort of. None of us, of course, should think "American Idol" is really over. But instead of a revival, why not broaden the focus to include all types of acts like "America’s Got Talent" and perhaps call it "American Idol 2X." I would use the same creative team and offer a new host and a new trio of judges. That would make it look fresh, yet it would still feel familiar.
Since I like to give any broadcast network the benefit of the doubt, let me remind you that television is a cyclical business. What is "in" one season can be "out" the next, and vice versa. But when your ratings sink this low, and your knight in shining armor has been put out to pasture, it could take years to rebound.