As Fox Entertainment gears up for the fall season, the chief of its unscripted division is most excited about returning to production with scaled-back pandemic restrictions.
“I’m not gonna say COVID’s gone, because it’s definitely not gone, but things have become easier to film,” Rob Wade, president of alternative entertainment and specials, told Variety ahead of the network’s summer 2022 Television Critics Association press tour presentation. (Find Variety‘s interview with Fox’s scripted chief Michael Thorn here.)
More from Variety
“‘We have ‘The Masked Singer’ coming back,” which has been completely reinvented,” Wade said. The series, a singing competition between celebrities whose identities are concealed by elaborate costumes, debuted in 2019. Therefore, only its first two seasons got through production unaffected by COVID-19.
Season 8 will follow what Wade calls a “king or queen of the hill” format, where only one contestant will move on from each episode. After three singers perform and votes are counted from the studio audience, the loser will unmask mid-show before the remaining two battle with a rendition of the same song. The loser of that round will also unmask, meaning that, unlike in previous seasons, viewers won’t have to wait as long to figure out each who the celebrities are. Winners will move on to compete against another two masked celebrities, and so on, until the semi-finals.
“That means we can make the clues easier. We don’t have to try and keep people going for 12 weeks,” Wade explains. “As a viewer, you can guess who they are and get really satisfied, because you find out that night.”
This strategy was devised from a goal to make “The Masked Singer” friendlier to viewers who do find themselves interested, but are more inclined to sporadic viewing rather than tuning into the entire season.
“In this day and age, how many people come back and watch 12 episodes of the season? It’s not that many. Most people are in and out of the show,” Wade says. “And we don’t want people to stay out on the show because they haven’t seen an earlier [episode].”
Fox caught heat for Season 7 of “The Masked Singer,” when Rudy Giuliani was revealed as a contestant. Back in May, Wade expressed “absolutely no regrets” about casting Donald Trump’s former attorney, who attempted to help overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. However, he seemed to hint that no such controversy would emerge from Season 8. “Hillary Clinton is on it!” he joked. “No, you will love this season. That’s what I can guarantee.”
He was similarly sly when addressing a casting rumor about Tom Brady, who recently signed a $375 million, 10-year deal with Fox Sports: “We can’t comment, but whenever we see it, our marketing team is always trying to engage with the fans. I can’t say yes; I can’t say no. We’re left having to say. ‘Wait and see!”
Gordon Ramsay is another big name with a big deal at Fox, having formed production company Studio Ramsay Global with the network back in 2021. Earlier this week, SRG announced its first key executive appointment, head of worldwide strategy and U.S. operations Cyrus Farrokh, and up next, the company will debut “Gordon Ramsay’s Food Stars” on Fox in the U.S. (The series has already aired in the U.K.)
“It’s Gordon like you’ve never seen him before, from a business point of view,” Wade says, as “Food Stars” sees contestants compete to win a financial investment from Ramsay.
Other new shows coming to the network include the newly announced “Special Forces: The Ultimate Test” (working title), adapted from the U.K. format “SAS: Who Dares Wins.” Debuting in January 2023, the series follows 16 celebrities through mock special forces training in the Jordanian desert. The cast includes Jamie Lynn Spears, Anthony Scaramucci, Kate Gosselin, Mel B, Hannah Brown, Kenya Moore, Dwight Howard and more.
Wade says the “SAS” adaptation is the first show he’s ever made without an elimination process, instead simply relying on contestants’ willpower to continue.
“They’re completely removed from society and producers,” he describes. “The staff sergeants control everything within the camp. They live in a in the middle of the desert, 100 degrees, in a place where the toilets are literally a hole in the ground. Their beds are just a sheet over a metal bar. It’s completely back to basics.”
Fox has also greenlit ‘Farmer Wants a Wife,” adapted from a format developed by Fremantle that has run territories including the U.K. and Australia. The network calls it “the world’s most successful dating show” and says it has resulted in 180 marriages so far.
“At the moment, people are drawn to nostalgia. The homestead farm is at the very fabric of America, and I think it’s under threat,” Wade says. “These farmers need to find girlfriends or wives, and at this point, some of them are living 400 or 500 miles away from their nearest Tinder match. People have moved to the cities, and that’s obviously left the countryside in a precarious place in terms of jobs and so on.”
On the topic of returning shows, besides “The Masked Singer,” Wade mentioned that Fox has banked a third season of “Name That Tune,” will produce a third season of “I Can See Your Voice” in October, and is developing a slightly different version of “Alter Ego,” which has run for one season thus far.
Several shows on Fox’s unscripted slate have yet to be renewed, but Wade kept mum around the word “cancellation.”
“We keep all our shows simmering away,” he says, citing that slight upticks in ratings don’t always translate to increased value for Fox. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years: You never know when you want to come back. It’s not like the old days where this gets a five and this gets a three and this gets a two [in ratings], because there is an actual financial difference between a two and a three, [but] there’s not a lot of difference between three-tenths. So you never know in the jigsaw of a schedule when you’re going to want to bring something back, and when you’re going to have enough money to buy a bigger show.”
“People will come back like, ‘This show costs X,’ and you say, ‘Well, I can’t buy that.’ And then, guess what? Six months later, it’s X minus half a million bucks. This is what we’re seeing in unscripted now: massive focus on becoming cost effective yet delivering at a high level.”
Thus, he says, “budgets are being creatively worked on” for shows like “Domino Masters,” “Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer” and “The Real Dirty Dancing,” but they have not been officially renewed or canceled.
The same is true for “So You Think You Can Dance,” which had its fair share of controversy this year when Matthew Morrison exited the show as a judge after failing to “follow competition production protocols, preventing [him] from being able to judge the competition fairly,” as he said in a statement. He was fired after sending private messages on social media to female contestant and later replaced by Leah Remini.
Wade had no additional comment besides to say that Fox has moved on from the matter: “The show is creatively as strong as ever.”
Michael Schneider contributed to this report.
Best of Variety