TIME Television

Upfronts Watch: With Idol Fading, Fox Needs to Make Noise

David Tennant and Anna Gunn in the 10-episode "event series" Gracepoint, based on the British Broadchurch. FOX

The network's big news for next season is a plan to cut back the once-huge singing show's hours. What will take its place? "Events," lots of "events."

It’s going down, I’m yelling timber…
The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Did anybody at Fox listen to the lyrics before electing to open its upfront with Pitbull on stage performing “Timber”—and to have it introduced by Ryan Seacrest, host of the once-huge-but-not-so-much-anymore American Idol? The bigger they are indeed. Idol was big, bigger than anything in series TV the last decade. And maybe “fall” is a relative term here, but its ratings have, hard enough that the big Fox news of this upfronts day was that it’s going to cut back Idol heavily next year, from 50-some hours to 30-some.

Well, nothing lasts forever, and something has to replace some of those hours. A big part of the plan at Fox is “events.” The 2014 upfronts, at all the networks, is all about “events”–sports events, musical events, event miniseries. The idea, in this entertainment-saturated, social-media-crazy, DVR-and-streaming culture is that if you want people to watch your shows live or close to live (and thus make money off the ads), you need to make them into big occasions that people will buzz about. (Like they used to, well, American Idol.) TV needs to be “noisy”–another buzzword I’m hearing so often at this year’s upfronts my ears are ringing.

The “event series” is not a brand-new focus: Fox was talking them up at last year’s upfront, including one, the Twin Peaks-y Wayward Pines, which Fox finally showed clips from at this upfront. It also previewed a trailer for Gracepoint, an Americanization of the fantastic British murder mystery Broadchurch; despite having a similar setup, beginning, and one of the same stars–David Tennant, playing a Yank–Fox says it will somehow work its way to a different ending.

But Fox has other “events” planned to inject some “noise” into its lineup: what we used to call “TV series.” It’s been a while since a new network reality series has had a big breakthrough, but Utopia–in which 15 Americans get a year to build a society on three acres–promises at least to be big in scale. (Good or bad, I will probably watch it, because I am a terrible person.)

Fox’s only new fall sitcom (several are in the works for midseason) is Mulaney, a standup-based comedy that Fox programming chief Kevin Reilly said he believes “has the makings of a Seinfeld for a new generation”–so, you know, no inflated expectations or anything. (The trailer? Fine. But Seinfeld wasn’t Seinfeld when it started.)

Among the fall dramas are Gotham, which should maybe be called. “DC’s Agents of G.O.T.H.A.M.,” the Batman prequel that’s already aired a moody trailer, but will have to draw interest from non-superheroes while Bruce Wayne and his future enemies are tweens. Red Band Society, a teen dramedy set in a pediatric hospital ward, looks like a tear-extraction machine. And the midseason entries are widely diverse: Backstrom, Rainn Wilson’s self-destructive-cop vehicle; Hieroglyph, a mystery set in ancient Egypt, with vampires to distinguish it from your usual ancient-Egypt network drama; and Empire, with Terrence Howard (also in Wayward Pines) as a hip-hop mogul with a terminal diagnosis trying to choose his successor.

Oh, and while we’re talking about something different, late Monday night, after the upfront presentation, Fox went online with a trailer for The Last Man on Earth, a midseason comedy that, here anyway, looks a little bit like a live-action WALL*E:

I have no idea where this series is going after this, and I’m very curious to find out.

Fox to its credit is at least trying different things. Upfront trailers won’t tell you what’s good or bad, but there are a good half-dozen shows here I’m eager to see the first episode of. But we’ll have to see if any of this fills the Idol gap. The bigger you were, the harder your Fall is.

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