Fox's Kevin Reilly: Network TV Is Weathering the Digital Storm Just Fine

With ad dollars and hit comedies both up, he tells a Hollywood Radio TV Society panel, “I'm genuinely excited in a way I wasn't a few years ago.”

The good times are back.

Buoyed by a record upfront on Madison Avenue in the spring, as well as a flurry of hit new comedies in the fall, network entertainment presidents expressed a consensus of optimism as they met for a Hollywood Radio TV Society lunchtime panel in Beverly Hills.

"I'm genuinely excited in a way I wasn't a few years ago," said Kevin Reilly, president of entertainment for the Fox Broadcasting Company. "I think there's now some clarity to the marketplace — it's clear that our product is a transmedia product that can work on multiple platforms."

"It's the best, most exciting time to be in network TV," concurred CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler, seated beside Reilly at the Beverly Hilton panel, which was emceed by "Survivor" host Jeff Probst. "There's a renewed sense of optimism — a sense of hope."

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According to Reilly, the strong reception for new comedies — including Fox's "New Girl," CBS' "2 Broke Girls," and NBC's "Whitney," all of which have already received full-season orders — has proven that, in a world of convergent media, television content still drives the bus.

Oh, the record upfront advertising market over the spring — during which broadcasters took in about $9.5 billion — also has enhanced broadcast-network confidence.

"Other than the goofy girl who sang about eating cereal on Fridays, we haven't seen big talent migrate in reverse [from the internet]," he said. "Advertisers have realized that they can't replace our product and that's why they keep buying it."

In the wide-ranging panel discussion — typical for this annual HRTS luncheon event — the network entertainment chiefs addressed everything from updating ratings metrics to the affects of the economy on programming choices.

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For starters, they all agreed that the bidding war this fall for pilots has become a little overheated. 

For example, with new NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke talking vaguely about a recent pitch she liked, Reilly quipped, "Better send [the producers] flowers … Or better yet, better mow their lawn."

Clarifying his remarks, Reilly continued his earlier push for broadcast TV to dispense of the typical  fall-season crush and move to a year-around schedule. Simply put, he said having all the networks demanding the same talent at the same time is inefficient.

"There's got to be a holistic way of looking at this business that would be better than having us all bottleneck up," he explained. "If we can get efficient, we can make a better product in the end."

Concurred ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee: "If we didn't have to cast 60 pilots at one time, it would be better."

Reilly went on: "The [fall] starting line is ridiculous. To think that viewers are all sitting around with their highlighter pens, waiting for the fall schedule…"

Reilly was also incredulous regarding the topic of Nielsen measurement, which the panel universally agreed is outdated in the digital age.

"I'm not going to fight the windmill of Nielsen, but we do need to keep them honest," he said. "The fact that we're still filling out diaries in living rooms is insane to me."

For his part, Reilly has advocated moving to a people meter system.

Lee, meanwhile, cited the poor economy as the reason why new comedies, such as ABC's "Suburgatory," are catching on with viewers this fall.

"I think those of us who've put a lot of effort into comedy this year have certainly benefitted from it," he noted.

Among two newcomers to the panel this year, CW TV president Mark Pedowitz cautioned that, in development, network tastemakers take a risk when the program for a cultural climate that might not exist by the time a pilot pitch hits the air.

Continuing to steal the show, Reilly quipped, "Oh yeah, this will all be cleared up by May."