Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Super TV preview: Fox

Ladies and gentlemen, if I might present Fox, the network with two personalities. There's the "We're the biggest network around!" January-May super-conglomerate. And there's the "We'll do anything for a 7 share!" June-December puny scamp that struggles to find ways to work around baseball.

The two Foxes share exactly one stable hit (House). The biggest network around has 24 in addition to American Idol. The puny scamp has the Sunday night comedy block (which isn't what it once was ratings-wise). It also has The O.C., a show Fox was never able to capitalize on like it probably could have (another year post-Idol might have done it some good). And it's got Prison Break, which will continue its weird scheduling next year (saving me from having to figure out what Fox will put on Mondays pre-Idol).

Fox is legitimately the only network that veers from first to fourth place. There's no in between. To have a monster fall, it has to hope that teams people want to watch get into the World Series. When it was the Red Sox on their way to their first title in decades, people watched. When it was the under-mythologized White Sox, they didn't. Fox's best hope is a Cubs/Yankees match-up, and from the looks of the Cubbies' lineup, that ain't going to happen.

One thing you could say for Fox back in the day is that they would take chances. They put The Simpsons on the air. They bet on conservatives getting mad over Married With Children and scored their first hit through the controversy. They stuck with The X-Files and Arrested Development, turning one into a hit and never connecting with the other.

Nine times out of ten, the most intriguing pilots were Fox pilots. They failed with some of them (Herman's Head was better in theory than execution). They could never find audiences for others (Firefly remains sorely missed, but people weren't calling out for a sci-fi Western). But they turned some of them into big hits (24). And even their pilots that were more conventional blended genres (House blended the procedural with the medical drama) or offered up fun twists on stale formulas (Malcolm in the Middle and the family sitcom).

But something curious has been happening recently. While networks like ABC have adopted the Fox formula of taking big risks to their own products, Fox has fallen back onto procedurals and the like. Last fall, their best pilot was Prison Break, a 24 retread that had an interesting premise with less interesting execution. Then they had a wave of crime procedurals and sitcoms that felt like second drafts of more original shows.

And their pilot development isn't much better this year. If you look at their pilots, you see a mess of shows that seem "been-there, done-that" in their loglines. Even Beyond, the most original show there (it's about a space race after an asteroid hits the Earth) and Drive (about a cross-country race) seem to be cashing in on the Lost-alike trend of last year a little too late.

I think I know what the problem is: Fox is thinking of itself as a network that operates from a position of stability. But it's only that for half of the year. When American Idol is on, this network can do little to no wrong. Thursdays and Fridays are problems, but every other night scores well enough to keep it right on CBS' tail. The problem is that when American Idol starts to decline (and it's hard to see it topping the HUGE ratings it has booked this year), it could pull the rest of the lineup down with it. Fox wants to play like CBS when it REALLY should be playing like ABC and taking chances.

But I doubt they'll listen to me.

Fox's fall schedule was not exactly the measure of clarity. They tried leading off a night with Arrested Development, killing that show ultimately. They were going to make huge, risky moves at midseason. And they're probably glad they left House where it is. It's not really the sort of show you can move. Grey's Anatomy is the sort of show you can move. There's a solid, passionate fan base there. House, however, inspires passion, but I don't see a huge cult forming around it.

Anyway. . .

Let's take a look at next year's schedule and see if we can't figure out what the network might do pre- and post-Idol.

Sundays:

7 p.m. EST/PST: Football overflow/cartoon reruns
7:30 p.m.: King of the Hill (starting in January, most likely)
8 p.m.: The Simpsons
8:30 p.m.: The Winner (new series)
9 p.m.: Family Guy
9:30 p.m.: American Dad

The War at Home was one of the worst reviewed pilots of last year. It's only gotten worse. Though its ratings aren't bad (the similarities between the Simpsons and Family Guy audiences are so large that people will sit through anything in between them), it's not the heir to Married with Children Fox hoped it was. Enter The Winner, which has a script that is, I kid you not, EVEN WORSE than The War at Home. Still, the actors in the show are all talented, and Fox has to pay a cash penalty if they don't order the show. Its also from Seth McFarlane's production team, so its crude humor should mesh well with Family Guy and the abysmal American Dad (though I try to hate it so, Family Guy makes me laugh too often to get an outright pan). King of the Hill and Simpsons were recently picked up for new seasons, and I don't think they're going anywhere.

Monday

Pre-Idol:
8 p.m.: Parenteen (new series)
9 p.m.: Prison Break

Post-Idol:
8 p.m.: Parenteen/Prison Break
9 p.m.: 24

Who better to save reality TV than Ashton Kutcher? Fox has thrown weird reality shows before their action series in the past, and they never end up the worse for the wear. Hence, Parenteen, which involves Kutcher helping parents and teens GET ALONG. Prison Break is writing a cliffhanger after 13 episodes into its structure again next season. Prison Break is also going to leave the prison and change its name (presumably to Prison Break: Escape or Prison Break: Manhunt) in one of the riskiest creative moves a series has undertaken yet. Sure, Lost opened the hatch and found a conspiracy and Battlestar Galactica landed on a planet, but this move changes the central underpinnings of the show. 24's sixth season is assured, and the only question is when the show will kill off Jack Bauer or launch a spinoff.

Tuesday:

Pre-Idol:
8 p.m.: American Crime (new series)
9 p.m.: House

Post-Idol:
8 p.m.: Beyond (new series)
9 p.m.: House

Fox tried a procedural before House last year in Bones. It held its own in a competitive time slot and later moved to Wednesdays to quietly become a minor hit. It's not the earth-shaker that House was, but it worked well enough that Fox will probably try again. American Crime is a lawyer show. Those sorts of shows aren't really in vogue right now, but neither were medical dramas when House came around. American Crime has a stellar cast, and I can't help but think that it might do okay for itself. Obviously, American Idol isn't on Tuesdays in this scenario. You'll see why in a second. Beyond seems to be the most family friendly of Fox's pilots, and the network is reportedly high on it. It also comes from some of the producers of House. Since families are used to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays on Fox, why not lure them in once Idol has debuted again?

Wednesday

Pre-Idol:

8 p.m.: Bones
9 p.m.: Til Death (new series)
9:30 p.m.: The Worst Week ofMy Life (new series)

Post-Idol:

8 p.m.: American Idol (new night)
9 p.m.: Bones (new time slot)

If either of those new comedies is a mega-hit, Fox can shuffle them over to Thursdays or Sundays. I'm not predicting much, though. Til Death stars Brad Garrett, so it gets the lead-off spot. Worst Week is a promising series that blends 24-style pacing with wedding hijinks. Fox is intrigued enough by it to order additional scripts, so it will get a tryout somewhere. Theoretically, trying out comedies opposite Lost and Criminal Minds is a good idea. And then at midseason, we come to the big deal. If Fox could stretch AI over three nights, it would. It performed well enough on Thursdays to make them salivate. Both Survivor AND CSI are losing viewers (slightly in both cases), and Fox would be happy to facilitate that decay so IT can take over as the big cheese on Thursdays. I don't think ALL of the pieces are in place to make this happen, but I think Fox is going to try. There have been signs it might happen since last year, and this is the last year it would really be an option. Bones gets bounced around AGAIN.

Thursday:

Pre-Idol:
8 p.m.: The O.C. (new time slot)
9 p.m.: The Wedding Album (new series)

Post-Idol:
8 p.m.: The O.C.
9 p.m.: American Idol results show (new night)
9:30 p.m.: Julie Reno: Bounty Hunter (new series)

Let's be clear. The Wedding Album is a sacrificial lamb. It's a show that Fox will throw there to have something on in that time slot that's not static. Should it take off, Fox will be grateful. But if it doesn't, they'll be expecting that. And they'll probably plug in Nanny 911! (their all-purpose slot filler). The O.C. really SHOULDN'T get a fourth season, but the show would enter syndication at the end of one, so Fox will slog out another low-rated season (really, aside from keeping the quality high, the show should have never left Wednesdays). American Idol begins its assault on CBS here, while Julie Reno has a great cast and great writers.

Friday:

8 p.m.: The War at Home (new night, time-slot)
8:30 p.m.: Bash (new series)
9 p.m.: Drive (new series)

Fox needs to lead off the night with something. Since the odds of Bernie Mac coming back for yet another last-second season seem unlikely (what with the show in syndication and all), I think they'll go for broke with the young male audience that MIGHT be at home, not having dates. The War at Home and Bash look likely to compliment each other (Bash is about regular people getting celebrity-style roasts), and Drive is an action series from solid producer Tim Minear.

Saturday:

8 p.m.: Cops
8:30 p.m.: Cops
9 p.m.: America's Most Wanted

Fox is the only network scheduling original programming on this night. It works well enough for them that it probably won't change any time soon.

As always, a list of shows I could just as easily see them picking up or throwing in midseason.

The 12th Man
13 Graves
The Adventures of Big Handsome Guy and His Little Friend
Primary
Southern Comfort
Vanished

Vanished was one I had pegged early on, but it seems too similar to NBC's already-picked-up Kidnapped to me to break through.

Honestly, Fox was the hardest network to do, so I'm sorry for how late this was. NBC is up next, and they're a network that could pretty much do ANYthing!

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