Fox’s Reality Slate: The Thorn in Kevin Reilly’s Side

The progressive thinker’s tenure at the network will be blemished by the performance of its unscripted programming

Getty Images

Outgoing Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly has had an uneasy time with the network’s reality programming slate, an important facet of the network’s success.

Reilly may have inherited a sinking ship with flagship show “American Idol’s” ratings dropping, but he signed on to the job knowing that he (and his team) were expected to right the ship.

When Reilly landed the top job in 2012 (he joined Fox in 2007), “American Idol” ratings were already on the decline. Gone were the days in which 25-30 million people would tune in to the singing show. The 2011-2012 season was averaging about 20 million viewers.

Also read: Insider: Kevin Reilly Replacement Likely to Come From Outside Fox Network (Exclusive)

Fox introduced what it believed would be “Idol’s” heir apparent, Simon Cowell‘s “The X Factor,” in 2011. Despite Cowell’s prediction that his British import would nab 20 million viewers, the show’s first season averaged 12 million total viewers.

Things went on to look dire after another season of each show (and Reilly’s first year at the helm) had passed. “Idol” ratings were officially in freefall, registering around 15 million viewers. “The X Factor” would follow suit and find that its ratings had dropped to 10 million.

Executives wondered how much further they could bleed out viewers without finding some kind of new ratings juggernaut and before “X Factor” and “Idol” became too expensive to continue.

Also read: Kevin Reilly on Why He’s Leaving Fox and What’s Next for Both Him and the Network

In May 2013, longtime reality chief Mike Darnell suddenly announced he was exiting the network after 18 years. Fox’s spin sought to make the exit Darnell’s idea.

At the time, an individual with knowledge of the situation told TheWrap that fingers were pointing toward Reilly, but Darnell ended up taking the fall.

Fox corporate’s live events guru David Hill was placed in charge of “Idol” and “The X Factor” in Darnell’s absence.

Then in October, Reilly named Discovery’s Simon Andreae as Darnell’s successor. It didn’t take long for the new reality boss to start ruffling feathers within the company. “Boom!,” a quiz show surrounding the possible explosion of a fake bomb and another show in development which placed married people on an island, led to doubts about Andreae’s taste level.

Also read: Kevin Reilly Exits Fox Right in the Middle of Transforming TV

Andreae’s split-second decision to buy “Utopia,” a big, year-round production with a $50 million production budget for its first season, has caused run-ins between Andreae and Hill and more internal strife.

In the meantime, “X Factor” fizzled in its third season with only 6 million people tuning in. It would then get canceled as Cowell abandoned ship to re-join the successful British version of the show as a judge.

Also read: Don’t Blame Ratings for Kevin Reilly’s Departure: Fox Finished in Second, Flat Year-to-Year

Earlier this month, “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’” premiered to a sad 0.7 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic and then fell to 0.4 in its second week. That isn’t a very good first impression.

So despite being a thought leader on the future of broadcast, in the end, Reilly’s tenure at Fox will be marred by his inability to sustain the network’s reality slate.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the greenlight for “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’” to Andreae when in fact it was a Darnell purchase.