There's not a lot of job security when you're running a network, but Kevin Reilly managed to spend the last decade overseeing two entertainment divisions: First NBC, then Fox. That streak comes to a close next month, as he exits his post as Fox Entertainment chairman.
In a brief Q&A with TV Guide Magazine on Thursday after announcing his exit, Reilly said he had no plans to take another top network job — but he's not ruling out an executive title somewhere else. (Reilly is already rumored to be a candidate for the key gig at Turner, among other possibilities.)
Reilly's exit comes after a rough year at Fox, which faced declining fortunes in the wake of one-time juggernaut American Idol's downward slide. Fox launched a new hit last year with Sleepy Hollow, but struggles (like its competitors) to find an audience for comedy — as shows like New Girl and Glee attract a fraction of the audiences they once did. Those challenges provoked talk of internal clashes at Fox this pilot season, and the network's new fall schedule eliminates a four-comedy lineup on Tuesdays (a strategy Reilly had championed). Rumors of Reilly's exit began to heat up in New York the week of the network upfronts.
Nonetheless, Reilly is a respected and admired executive in Hollywood, particularly for his candor, and is expected to land somewhere else quickly. He made waves earlier this year by taking a stance against pilot season, proclaiming to reporters that he would kill the traditional way TV shows are developed. Rivals teased him, yet every network is embracing change like year-round development, limited-run series and original summer fare.
Fox has not yet named Reilly's replacement and declined comment on speculation that either FX Networks CEO John Landgraf or 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden might add the network to their portfolios. Here's an edited transcript of our Fox farewell chat with Reilly.
TV Guide Magazine: These announcements are never easy to make. What triggered your departure, and where is your mind at as you leave this big job?
Reilly: These are big announcements, and they're big because they're tough jobs to get, tough jobs to hold on to and you don't want to move rashly when you give them up. I can safely say I'm not coming back to a broadcast network buyer position anytime soon. And yet it's a job I've been really lucky to have. I think about the shows we have on the air, the people we're in business with, the talent I have relationships with, those things all go through your head. I've respected the people that I've worked for and they've been supportive and respectful of me.
TV Guide Magazine: Your exit has been in the works for a while. What was the process behind it?
Reilly: You wrestle with things. I'm excited about our new series we announced. But it's a very interesting tapestry out there right now. Change is already afoot, and I think it will continue to evolve radically in a number of years. I started thinking about other avenues. I definitely don't think it's fair to be sitting in a chair like this, either daydreaming or kicking the tires on other opportunities. I'm a believer in broadcast TV. I loved this job. But as soon as I found my mind starting to drift, it was really time to be honest about that.
TV Guide Magazine: Obviously Fox is coming to an end of a cycle, with ratings down and American Idol perhaps going away. Did some of that trigger your departure?
Reilly: American Idol may be going away or it may be settling into its next phase, which I think it could. I believe that the series decompression has already happened. [Idol was] our top show with a lot of hours, and then there was another one in that space with X-Factor that was an enormous part of our schedule in terms of hours. The profile and the profits, I think we've somewhat weathered the storm, as it's now come down to a more normal size. But there's no question the next season and beyond, the network has to be very sure-footed with the shows we put on and have another [hit like] Sleepy Hollow and shore up the comedies. There's no question we have entered a down cycle, and that's hard. That's hard at any time and it's even harder now given the environment out there with all of the on-demand viewing. I think a couple more successes and Fox can play right through. This is not an urgent situation. But everyone is very clear here, they've got to book some wins.
TV Guide Magazine: In your note to Fox staffers, you added a coda: "P.S. Don't go back to pilot season!" Talk about that. Are you afraid that old executive habits die hard?
Reilly: I have felt a little bit like Sisyphus, so if it falls back, that boulder will go over somebody else. That was always part of a larger effort. It's really about trying to bring the business practices into a little bit more of a contemporary mold. I hope the broadcast business in general would follow that. Of all those efforts we did here, if that was the catalyst to a continued change at Fox and even the broader broadcast business, that would be great. I would feel really proud to have had a hand in that.
TV Guide Magazine: It does seem like everyone in broadcast is exploring new ways of creating and airing shows, be it limited series or summer programming. Reason for optimism?
Reilly: Yeah, I think the wheels are finally turning. Look, people love television; they're watching a lot of it in a lot of ways. For a long time there was just that standard template that we did, from the business deals we did to the way we aired them. I think all bets are off now. I am glad that stuff is happening.
TV Guide Magazine: Your proudest moments at Fox?
Reilly: Launching Glee as a one-off pilot after American Idol and going viral over the summer; playing with air patterns — 15 episodes, now everyone's getting into the event series business; and shows that made waves. It was really about the people and the culture more than anything. I felt I was able to back producers who had some bold visions and it paid off. We were able to move the business forward a little bit and get out in front of things.
TV Guide Magazine: And the one that got away. Any heartbreaks?
Reilly: Weirdly, the fact that I bought The Walking Dead on my way out the door at NBC and it's come back to be the No. 1 show on television [on AMC] has definitely haunted me a bit.
TV Guide Magazine: How would you compare this departure to your exit at NBC? [Reilly was fired in 2007 when Ben Silverman was hired as NBC Entertainment co-chairman.]
Reilly: Thank God it's quite different. I'm sitting here in my office with a bunch of people and we're hugging each other. I'm not skulking out the side door with a lot of closed doors behind me. You do hope in these positions that you can have a clean transition on these kinds of terms.
TV Guide Magazine: What's next for you? Any chance you'd launch a production shingle with your Cornell fraternity brother [and former ABC Entertainment chairman] Steve McPherson?
Reilly: That sounds interesting, I hadn't even thought of that one, but that might be cool.
TV Guide Magazine: But where do you go from here?
Reilly: I've worked in a lot of different corporate cultures now and different-sized companies. Part of what I wanted to do here was be open to explore all of those, and now I am. I'd like to have a little bit of a breather, but I think we'll be talking again sometime soon.
TV Guide Magazine: With the exception of a month between jobs at NBC and Fox, you've spent the past 10 years running a major network entertainment unit. Ready for a break?
Reilly: I could use one. But I'm open to being an executive again. I like the role. But it won't be the profile of this job. I can see a very unconventional model or structure, I'm just as excited about that as I am about finding the right organization with the right people and assets to win. I'm open to all of the above. I have not had my fill of the executive suite by any means.