BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — With the prospects for a passably decent 2017-18 season now resting squarely on “Empire” and a funky Seth MacFarlane homage to “Star Trek” titled “The Orville,” Fox, the “fourth network,” has been forced into some defensive moves to prevent it from becoming the fifth.
So for that first defensive move, Fox has unveiled a new musical competition. The network announced at the Television Critics’ Press Tour here Tuesday that it will launch yet another search for a singing superstar. “The Four,” according to a network statement, will feature “four super-talented and fiercely competitive singers, chosen from their auditions by the show’s panel of music industry experts . . . ” The announcement comes as ABC prepares to launch a rebooted “American Idol” and as NBC’s “The Voice” keeps rolling along.
Fox executives didn’t even make an effort to disguise their intentions, and when asked whether Fox hoped “The Four” would be used to “sabotage” ABC’s “Idol,” Fox Television Group chairwoman Dana Walden affected mock disbelief: “REALLY!?”
Well, not quite really, at least yet. The network was sparse on production details, including who will make up the judges’ panel (other than figures from the world of music) or launch date. The show would also appear to borrow elements from both “Idol” — or at least from its final rounds — and “The Voice.” Contestants will be expected to “compete” to win the support of those judges, who will then develop the winner’s career.
Walden was asked if she had a form of reverse-buyer’s remorse by allowing the more important TV hit of the century to decamp from Fox.
Short answer, no. The longer answer was more complicated.
Walden insisted that Fox had not made a “mistake” by releasing “Idol” to the enemy, but said, “Would we have ever liked to have had it back? Yes. Did we want it a year or two later [after its April 7, 2016] finale? No. We felt that would have been fraudulent to our viewers. We wanted the time to rest this show.”
She added that “we were a little taken back on our heels when [it landed] so soon and so weren’t as aggressive as we should have been or as another network was.”
She said Fox decided to end the historic 15-year run because “it was an extremely expensive show [and] the economics were terrible for us. We spent a lot of time with [producer] Fremantle talking about the solution to that problem, like cutting the cost, and while they were open to doing something . . . they were very worried about doing anything that would disrupt the chemistry on that panel. We were locked into judges who were excellent but who contributed to that high cost, and they didn’t want to experiment with that format.”
She added, “I don’t blame them. They believed the format worked and wanted to protect it, which left us with a dilemma. We had a choice of either moving forward with that loss or sending the show off for some period of time however long that might be.”
Walden declined to say whether ABC had made a mistake or faced the same losses Fox had faced. (ABC will pay judge Katy Perry a reported $25 million to appear — and there are two judges yet to be named). She did say, however, that ABC would force Fremantle into “dealing with all the things they didn’t want to deal with in the first place.”
Walden’s counterpart at ABC, Channing Dungey, was in fact asked the too-soon-too-expensive question on Sunday. Said she, “In terms of it being something that’s coming back too soon, if you look at the social media on ‘American Idol,’ the fans have been clamoring for it to come back since the day that it went away. “
She did corroborate one key point that Walden raised: This will indeed be a different “Idol,” and — in fact — a Disneyfied one. “This is going to be ABC’s version of ‘American Idol,’ ” said Dungey, “and we are really looking forward to being able to put our special stamp and imprimatur on that.”
In other words, Disney World here we come.