21CF Chats: FOX’s Michael Thorn talks fall TV premieres

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FOX’s President of Entertainment on this fall’s new shows, football’s important role and more

Last week marked the beginning of the 2018-2019 TV season, with fall premieres of new and returning shows peppered throughout the calendar for the next several weeks. We sat down with FOX Broadcasting Company’s President of Entertainment Michael Thorn to talk about this fall’s debuts and how football has a part to play in many of the network’s scripted favorites.

One of FOX’s new sitcoms this fall is “The Cool Kids” – how did this show come about?
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” alum Charlie Day worked at a retirement community before he became an actor and writer, and that experience birthed the idea for “The Cool Kids” (Fridays at 8:30/7:30c). Think of it as a high-school culture in a retirement community, where an unlikely group of friends becomes their own support group and family. Bringing us unique hilarious capers every week is the incredible cast of David [Alan Grier], Leslie [Jordan], Vicki [Lawrence] and Martin [Mull], who are all comedy legends. They’re also bringing a point of view that’s just not on broadcast TV right now.

It’s a great opportunity to pair this show with the built-in awareness of “Last Man Standing” (Fridays at 8/7c) and use one of our strongest assets – Thursday Night Football – to help launch it.  As a story concept, there’s nothing like it on TV, and with these comedy legends who have incredible chemistry right out of the gate, we think it’s really promising. The amazing lead-in “Last Man Standing” gave it Friday night resulted in a 1.5/8 rating for “The Cool Kids’” premiere, up 67 percent from the premiere week time period last season. When you factor in “REL’s” strong launch, FOX claims this fall’s top two new comedies.

FOX’s President of Entertainment Michael Thorn

Speaking of which: “REL” (Sundays at 9:30/8:30c) is another freshman sitcom and comes on after the Sunday animated comedy lineup of “The Simpsons,” “Bob’s Burgers” and “Family Guy.”
This is our Sunday night multi-cam comedy – based on comedian and actor Lil Rel Howery’s standup routine about aspects of his own life, where he uses comedy to tell the story of starting over after a messy divorce. He uses that as a jumping-off point to create a very funny and accessible comedy.

“REL” has already debuted earlier this month and its second episode started again on Sunday, Sept. 30.  A similar approach was taken with the second season premiere of “9-1-1” (Mondays at 9/8c). What’s the strategy behind these early premieres for select shows?
Our strategy is to use our sports assets as a platform to launch our new and returning shows; our marketing team does a phenomenal job of capitalizing on football to help us launch our scripted shows. We used Sunday Night Football to give us a special premiere of “REL” to get out ahead of the typical fall premiere week and raise awareness of this new comedy. We’ve gotten very strong sampling – a 2.1 L7 rating and 6.3 million viewers – and the social media feedback after the premiere was extremely positive.

With “9-1-1,” we had the Season 2 premiere last Sunday night after football, when it delivered a series best 3.4/14 in Live + 3 Day and 13.8 million viewers. And then last Monday, Sept. 24, we aired an incredible episode with an earthquake that rocked Los Angeles. That paired with our medical drama “The Resident” helped give FOX its most-watched Monday in four years. The goal was to event-ize the show’s sophomore season, as it did so well when we launched last year. It’s a priority to turn it into one of our biggest assets.

L-R: Guest star Leah Jeffries, Sinbad, Lil Rel Howery, Jessica “Jess Hilarious” Moore, guest star Che Tafari and Jordan L. Jones in the all new “Kids First Visit” episode of REL airing Sunday, Oct. 7(9:30-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2018 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Ray Mickshaw/FOX

You’re also reviving “Last Man Standing” after another network canceled it last year. What was it like to bring the Season 7 reboot to FOX?
The response we’ve gotten from ordering another season has been so positive – the fans are incredibly passionate and the response to the first couple of episodes have been very strong. It’s a wonderful family comedy and it anchors a very strong Friday comedy block for us. The nature of these shows is ideal for co-viewing with the family, so we think we can really leverage Thursday Night Football to launch this new comedy night for us. And we couldn’t be happier with how well it did Friday, when we won the night with a 63 percent margin ahead of No. 2 CBS. It brought in 8 million viewers in Live + Same Day alone, giving us our most-watched comedy in seven years. And its 1.8/10 rating was its highest since its Season 2 debut – and that was six years ago.

Now let’s move on to the dramas. During last season’s finale on “9-1-1,” Connie Britton’s character Abby Clark left for Ireland and now actress Jennifer Love Hewitt is stepping in with a new character. So much of what informed Abby’s motivations in her day-to-day life was worrying about her ailing mother who lived with her. What’s the new character’s “hook”?
She is Buck’s sister and what you’ll come to find early in the season is that she’s running from something in her past. That’s all I can say for now without giving away any spoilers.

How do you make her different enough from Abby but still hold on to last season’s fans who loved Abby?
We have a tremendous cast in “9-1-1.” We knew going into the show that we had a one-year deal with Connie, and now we feel very lucky to have Jennifer. It’s terrific to have her back on FOX and the audience will be drawn into her story. Fans of the show will recognize this familiar line whenever the first responders answer a call: “What’s your emergency?” One of the elements we love about this show is that everyone either has had that experience or certainly has the fear of encountering a situation where you have to call 911.

Which character’s backstory are we diving into this season?
When Season 2 opens, we’ll have some fun with Bobby and Athena’s romance – they’re really charming together. There will also be a new firefighter played by Ryan Guzman (“The Boy Next Door”) – he has a fun, playful chemistry with Buck. We’ll also continue to unravel some of the other characters’ backstories.

9-1-1: Jennifer Love Hewitt in the “Awful People” episode of 9-1-1 airing Monday, Oct. 8 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2018 FOX Broadcasting. CR: Greg Gayne / FOX.

Another show that will be dealing with a character/actor change is “Lethal Weapon” (Tuesdays at 9/8c). As the fans deal with losing Riggs (played by Clayne Crawford), actor Seann Williams Scott will be coming into the third season as Murtaugh’s new partner, former CIA agent Wesley Cole. How does this play out?
When we learned about the challenges on the show, we were faced with the decision of canceling the show or replacing Riggs with another actor. [Executive Producer] Matt Miller pitched the new Cole character and when we got Seann, who is very likable and charming and has great chemistry with Damon [Wayans], we decided to order another season. And the audience embraced this change, with “Lethal Weapon” posing its highest ever lifts in three-day viewing.

What drives Cole’s character?
Cole is a former CIA operator who worked overseas for a long time and in the process, gave up having a relationship with his child. A horrific tragedy on a mission forces him to reflect on his life and he decides to come back to L.A. to pick up the pieces of his life. Chaos always follows him, but in a different way than Riggs. While Cole is flawed and emotional, he’s not as dark as Riggs; he’s a little funnier. We wanted to bring in another character who has a strong dynamic with Murtaugh but who isn’t a carbon copy of Riggs. It’s important for Seann to do his own stunts, so you’ll still feel the authenticity and intensity in his character and the action sequences when you watch the show.

How does losing his partner impact Murtaugh’s psyche this season? He loved Riggs like an annoying little brother.
Some of the emotional resonance that came out of Riggs’ backstory has now been transferred to Murtaugh because he’s mourning the loss of his partner. When we see him in the premiere, he’s lost and angry because he thinks there’s something fishy about Riggs’ death. Damon was terrific in the premiere episode in terms of walking the line between the raw emotions of dealing with Riggs’ death but still having a heck of a time chasing down the bad guys.

Good luck with the fall premieres! It certainly sounds like it’s going to be a hectic one.
We’re really excited for this fall’s offering. We had an exciting last year, particularly with our freshman dramas. Four of the season’s top 10 new series on broadcast TV were on FOX – “9-1-1,” “The Resident,” “The Gifted” and “The Orville” – more than any other network. So, for us to launch the second season of these returning shows in a meaningful way is pretty exciting.