May 29, 2014

NIELSENWAR: The Kevin Reilly Exit


The clock starts ticking on a network head’s job the second that he or she takes it, and today time ran out for Kevin Reilly, Entertainment Chairman of the FOX television network.  (Everyone is being extremely civilized and mouthing words about it being a voluntary decision, but in the history of the television world, the sighting of a truly voluntary exit from one of these positions would be something like laying eyes on a unicorn.  Playing Mozart.  While dunking a basketball.)  Reilly is generally considered to have taste as good as if not better than any of his peers, so there’s no gladness in seeing him go.

Still, it’s not terribly difficult to figure out why Reilly is out:  the ratings at FOX cratered this past season, and especially during the spring.  As we noted, FOX was at a fairly strong 2.37 average for the season as of March 2, partly because it aired this season’s Super Bowl, but its average during the just-ended May sweeps period was an atrocious 1.32.  Kevin Reilly didn’t sabotage American Idol, Glee or New Girl, but it was under his watch that all three fizzled from enormous hits to mammoth disappointments (and that’s being kind), and that kind of failure is enough to doom any network chief.  It’s also been reported that Reilly clashed with his boss, FOX Networks Group CEO Peter Rice, on issues that may have included Reilly’s desire to renew bubble shows Enlisted and Almost Human, both which Rice vetoed, hardly a sign of confidence.

FOX’s decision to make this change also can’t be seen as a rousing endorsement for any of the new shows the network just announced for the fall; if it believed Reilly had the next Walking Dead or Big Bang Theory in the network’s on-deck circle, he might have survived at least a few more months.  Although hopes are fairly high for Gotham, the rest of FOX’s fall crop–Red Band Society, Gracepoint, Mulaney, Utopia–are tougher propositions.  This is where Reilly’s much-vaunted plan to change the way networks develop their new programming–his exit e-mail to the staff ended with “Don’t go back to pilot season!”–may have come into play  In practice, this has meant very few pilots being produced by FOX, with straight-to-series orders for most of the shows that are going on its air.  It’s a thoughtful strategy, designed to result in higher-quality, better-planned product (and also save on the enormous expense of ordering dozens of pilots), but a risky one–FOX has reserved some shows for midseason, but it could face empty shelves if its new fall series fail, or if the shaky veterans shrink even further.  As bad as this season was for FOX, with just Sleepy Hollow and Brooklyn Nine-Nine renewed, and the latter with more hope than confidence, next season could easily be worse.

For that matter, as difficult as these network jobs have always been, they’re far tougher now.  Profit margins have shrunk to near-invisibility, and competition is pushing in from all sides.  Broadcast networks, in particular, are damaged by relying so heavily on advertising revenue, which are driven entirely by ratings, while cable networks can parlay their brand value to higher portions of subscription fees.

The other part of this cycle is that Reilly, who was previously in charge at NBC, will soon enough surface in another high position, either as a network (or other platform) head–Turner’s cable networks have already been mentioned–or as an independent producer with a well-funded deal.  Likewise, FOX will announce that he’s been replaced by someone who more than likely has already had a similar job elsewhere and been ousted from it.  And the clock will start ticking again…


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."