Will the horror of a serial killer and his murderous minions and the tantalizing possibility of an occasional diva dust-up help Fox rebound from an utterly unremarkable fall season? These were among the questions hanging in the air yesterday as Fox began its day at the Winter 2013 Television Critics Association tour.
Fox started off the morning with a panel for "The Following," the deeply dark and disturbing drama about a former FBI agent's efforts to stop a particularly sadistic serial killer who has amassed a cult of murderous followers. In light of the recent atrocities in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT there were a couple of questions directed at series creator and executive producer Kevin Williamson about the violence in the show and its overall unrelenting intensity.
The questioning was thoughtful and provocative, but hardly combustive. For example, when one critic asked Williamson whether or not Hollywood creators should consider the cumulative impact of violence in certain programming, he quietly replied, "I think we all worry about it. I mean, who wasn't affected by Sandy Hook? I'm still disturbed when I think of Aurora. We sat in the writers' room after that happened and we were just sort of traumatized by it. I'm writing fiction. I'm just a storyteller. You think there's this cumulative effect? I don't know. I know it affected me. I know what happens in the real world affects me. So when I take pen to paper, there is a reaction to it and it sort of finds its way into what I do. So I don't know."
The tone of the morning changed dramatically when the new judges on "American Idol" took the stage. In this session, the topic of primary interest was all the gossip and rumors about perpetual feuding between new judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. Naturally, there were denials all around about bad feelings between any and all of the judges, though there was much talk about passion.
"To counter all the nonsense that's been written, could you each say something you like and admire about the other?" one diplomatic critic asked Carey and Minaj.
"That actually is easy," Minaj said. "I say nice things about Mariah all the time, and I even tell her all the time how much of a fan I am of her. She's one of my favorite artists of all time, and I think she's really shaped a generation of singers, and to be on a panel with her, it's kind of crazy because all these singers that come in, they aspire to be a Mariah Carey in terms of their talent, and in terms of their career length, and so I feel excited to see them see someone they look up to so much and to be given a chance to sing in front of her and hear her critique."
Carey's response, while similarly sweet sounding, didn't exactly give the critic what he asked for. In other words, she answered without actually saying what she liked or admired about Minaj. "Nicki and I worked together very early on in her career and did a song that was from an album that I had done called 'Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel,' and it actually was one of my favorite videos and songs, and I did feel that she was going to go very far, and I still have that feeling," Carey cooed. "I'm grateful for anything nice that she or anyone were to say about me. I'm grateful just to be here today still doing what I love. Thank you."
The "Idol" panel may have been the main event, but the session that followed with Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly proved to be the most interesting. Asked about how recent events in Aurora and Newtown will impact his decision-making process as his network heads into pilot season, Reilly replied, "We're in the culture business. [We] are constantly monitoring cultural shifts, current events, shifts in mores, things that reflect society. We both reflect society and at times we try to drive it. I don't like to trivialize an issue by drawing a direct linkage between anything, but we take everything we do with the utmost responsibility. You can't be reactionary and you can't draw a direct linkage, but all of the above is on your mind when you're making these decisions."
As for the intensity of "The Following," Reilly noted, "This show adheres to our broadcast standards. We haven't pushed broadcast standards. The truth is I think there have been more violent shows on television. Some of them have come and gone and nobody noticed or cared because they were insignificant, bad shows. This is a significant show and a good show and I think, as such, you're invested in it and it feels even more intense than it is. If you actually put it through the filter of broadcast standards, of what we say is allowable or not, there is nothing in that show that we've even had to fight over.
"Look, it's a goal of mine to get a little bit of the Fox back in Fox," he added. "Before there was cable, Fox was cable. We were the edge of what was bold, and I still want to be there. This show fits into that realm. I'm competing with every show on cable. If you noticed, the top drama on television last year was 'Walking Dead.' For many years, I could sit here and say, oh, those [cable] shows are interesting and they're great, but you know what, if you took the highest rated show, it would rank number 95 on our air.
"That doesn't mean every show we put on should start chasing the standards of cable," Reilly continued. "In fact, our standards on this are much more conservative than on 'Walking Dead' or any of our basic cable comparisons. But we must match the intensity, otherwise we're going to be a pale comparison and we're not going to entertain the audience."