With WWE, Animation & Fewer Pilots, Fox Entertainment Is Suddenly Well Suited To Weather COVID-19 Shutdown

Over the past two weeks, Disney and Fox Corporation both issued warnings of “adverse impact” from the coronavirus pandemic on their business. Both companies also sold debt securities, raising $6 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively.

Disney, which combines the company’s legacy assets with those acquired in the $71.3 billion Fox acquisition, this week sent an internal memo announcing companywide pay cuts for all executives VP and above.

Meanwhile, Fox Corp., comprised of the assets left behind in the merger, two weeks ago sent an internal memo informing employees the company would be covering everyone’s medical insurance premiums for the next six months. “Your health and safety are our priority during this challenging time,” CFO John Nallen wrote in the memo. “We will continue to look for ways to ease the stress and inconvenience that these circumstances have brought to our daily lives.”

While the sports networks under the Fox Corp. umbrella have been significantly impacted by the suspension of almost all live sports, Fox Entertainment and Fox News have seen their ratings rise, boosted by increased TV viewing as millions of Americans stay at home to help slow the spread of the virus.

Fox News had its highest rated quarter ever in Q1. But’ the cable news network’s role during the pandemic has been widely criticized for underplaying the dangers of the coronavirus early on and for politicizing the outbreak.

Meanwhile, Fox Entertainment organized the first big coronavirus relief special, the Elton John-hosted Fox Presents: The iHeart Living Room Concert For America, which has raised more than $10 million to date. (Fox Corp. matched sponsor Procter & Gamble’s $500 million donation and is double matching each donation by a company employee.)

Facing deep skepticism a year ago whether it could survive without an affiliated studio following the departure of 20th TV for Disney, the now-independent Fox Entertainment came out of the gate strong, winning the fall in adults 18-49 for the first time in a decade.

And, through the fortunate confluence of events and circumstances, it has now found itself as possibly the most “coronavirus-proof” traditional media company.

While CBS, ABC snd NBC are taking major hits from the cancellation of March Madness and the suspensions of the NBA, NHL seasons and the Summer Olympics, along with a slew of premiere events in other sports like golf and tennis, Fox’s sports schedule for the season has remained largely intact. Postseason baseball and NFL football wrapped before the outbreak hit, and WWE is a rare major sports league to continue to operate as close to normal as possible, keeping Smackdown on Fox’s schedule.

Fox’s scripted slate also has seen a lot less disruption than other networks. Many of its series, including flagship 9-1-1 and spinoff 9-1-1: Lone Star, had finished their seasons before the mass production shutdown. Empire will end its final seasons two episodes early, The Resident’s season will be three episodes short, and Last Man Standing could not tape its final episode of the season.

But a lucky scheduling predicament helped Fox have a proper ending for its breakout freshman drama Prodigal Son. Because of a theater commitment in London for star Michael Sheen, episodes were shot out of order, so the Season 1 finale was filmed early. While the season will be two episodes short, the stand-alone episodes do not interfere with the overreaching season arc, which will come to a conclusion in the finale.

Additionally, Fox is the only broadcast network to feature primetime animation. The network has been ramping up that part of its portfolio over the past year and currently has five series, plus two more, Housebroken and The Great North, joining next season. Animation is one film/TV area that is still going strong, with production done remotely, so the network is able to get fresh episodes for the current season and its suppliers can work on next season’s orders.

Like the other broadcasters, Fox saw its pilot slate put in limbo by the shutdown. But, in part because of a push into year-round development and in part because of lesser needs, Fox ordered a fraction of the pilots picked up by other networks and about half of the pilots it produced last year, greatly limiting its exposure to the turmoil. Excluding the straight-to-series comedy Call Me Kat, which will now go directly into series production, Fox has four drama and two comedy pilots. Of them, comedy pilot This Country was well into production and could use the footage to put together a presentation.

Fox also lucked out by having its flagship reality series, The Masked Singer, being pre-recorded because of its nature. As a result, the network has its unscripted tentpole for the rest of the spring while ABC’s American Idol and NBC’s The Voice are pondering how to proceed beyond the pre-taped auditions and preliminary rounds as live shows face uncertainty.

Even on the awards show front, when the network’s iHeart Music Awards — like every other big entertainment event — were postponed two weeks before air date over the pandemic, the network found a quick replacement. It aired the Living Room For America telethon, which won Sunday night in adults 18-49 and drew 8.7 million viewers to become the highest-rated and most watched iHeartRadio special ever.

While other networks’ sister/in-house studios are currently taking a big financial hit, paying for overhead and costs associated with the shutdown while no product is being made, Fox Entertainment doesn’t have such expenses.

In fact, the production studio the company acquired last year, animation house Bento Box, is in possibly the only content creation business that has been booming during the shutdown and is currently hiring 20 freelancers in production as it is expanding operations.

This is not to say Fox Entertainment’s indie model is viable and sustainable in the long run, but, some by design some by fluke, the company’s unique setup has made it as well positioned as one could be for the unpredictable upheaval of a global pandemic.

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