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Fox’s Slate Shuffle a Long-Term Strategy for Beckman

Short-Term Changes Target Future Growth

It’s still November, but Fox’s Preston Beckman already has his mind on next fall.

According to the network’s scheduling guru, the massive midseason changes Fox announced late last week aren’t about boosting short-term ratings. Instead, they’re designed to help Fox in its perennial mission to boost ratings in the fourth quarter.

As always, the network heads into January behind most of the other networks, currently ranking third among adults 18-49 with a 3.1/8 (down 11% from last fall). Also as always, no matter what other shifts the network makes come January, the arrival of “American Idol” and “24” virtually guarantees Fox will leap into first place sometime in February.

That dominance of the winter months gives Fox executives the freedom to be more aggressive and try out risky moves, Mr. Beckman said. The hope is that the gambles announced last week will allow Fox to avoid completely remaking its lineup next fall, as it has often had to do in the past.

“The moves we’re making are about creating a very strong schedule beyond midseason,” Mr. Beckman said. “In success, they’ll make us a much more vital player in the fourth quarter of 2009 than we have been in the past. What we’re doing is setting ourselves up for the future.”

Mr. Beckman’s specific strategy can be boiled down to what President-elect Barack Obama might call “spreading the wealth around.”

“When ‘American Idol’ comes on, we have no choice but to move some shows,” Mr. Beckman explained. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we take some of our veteran shows that are red-hot and move them to new nights?’ It’s sort of spreading the offense.”

The new midseason schedule gives Fox drama tentpoles on four nights of the week and “is stronger than the one we announced last May,” he added.

Among the key plays:

—Starting in January, the network will shift its biggest drama, “House,” to Mondays at 8 p.m., pairing it with returning hit “24.”

“We felt it made a statement,” Mr. Beckman said of the move. “It probably gives us a winning night, and it gives ‘24’ the strongest lead-in we could after a year and a half off the air. It’s now one of the strongest nights of scripted programs on television.”

“Prison Break” will return to Fox sometime this season, but most likely not on Mondays, Mr. Beckman said.

—Fox will use “Idol” to boost two first-year dramas it hopes can turn into long-term players on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. “Fringe” retains the Tuesday 9 p.m. slot, with “Idol” replacing “House” as its lead-in. Procedural hour “Lie to Me” will be launched behind “Idol” Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

Mr. Beckman said giving “Fringe” a monster lead-in was a no-brainer. “Even though we think it’s a long-term player, it’s too young for us to be arrogant and think we don’t have to give it support,” he said.

The network’s hope is that “Fringe” can gather enough strength this spring so that it can return next fall as the lead-in to another new drama on Tuesdays.

Likewise, Mr. Beckman thinks “Lie to Me” is a good fit with a broad-appeal show such as “Idol.” At some point this spring, however, the Wednesday “Idol” will move to 9 p.m., with “Lie to Me” shifting to 8 p.m.

—”Bones” is relocating to Thursdays at 8. It was a stunner of a shift, since the show has been winning its time slot on Wednesdays, and Fox hasn’t had much luck with scripted shows on Thursdays lately.

Mr. Beckman isn’t worried.

“We think ‘Bones’ is a main event show now; it’s not on the undercard anymore,” he said, adding that NBC’s comedies and ABC’s “Ugly Betty” haven’t been setting the world on fire Thursdays at 8.

“There’s nobody in that time period that’s ascending,” Mr. Beckman said. “‘Bones’ can go in there and hopefully get us to parity with ABC and NBC on a very tough night.”

Fox also is installing a strong show at 9 p.m. Thursday with “Hell’s Kitchen,” which has proven to be one of the network’s most durable reality hits.

—Having all but abandoned scripted programming on Friday nights of late, Fox is jumping back onto the night in a very big (and expensive) way. Starting in February, the network will pair Joss Whedon’s lush new drama “Dollhouse” with the network’s big-budget action hour “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

While “Dollhouse” has been plagued by production shutdowns and rumors that Fox executives are uncertain about its commercial appeal, Mr. Beckman said scheduling the show on Friday is simply a byproduct of trying to design the strongest possible schedule for the network.

Mr. Beckman doesn’t pretend that “Dollhouse” and “Terminator” have an easy path ahead of them. But, particularly in the case of “Dollhouse,” Mr. Beckman thinks the less competitive Friday night will give the show a better chance to build an audience than a more high-profile night.

“If we put it on Monday and it didn’t do well, we might have to yank it,” he said. But because Fox’s winter lineup should be solid on Saturday through Thursday nights, “We can afford to let these shows run their course. We can give them 12 or 13 weeks to find an audience.”

Overall, Mr. Beckman said his goal coming out of the 2008-09 season is “to have four tentpoles for next year, and if we surprise ourselves, a Friday night,” he said. “If these moves work, it sets us up nicely for next fall. And with a little luck from our development, I think that for the first time we can put together a schedule that could actually let us be No. 1 in the fall.”

Comments (3)

mjkbk:


What's with the gratuitous insertion of Barack Obama's name in this item? Especially since the "spread the wealth around" concept is hardly a new theme invented by Mr. Obama.

Did Mr. Adalian make a bet with someone that he could drag Obama's name into every story he writes?

Looks like.

Robin:

“We can afford to let these shows run their course. We can give them 12 or 13 weeks to find an audience.”

Can, not will. After their shoddy treatment of other mid-season shows over the past few years, I can't help but doubt Fox's commitment to actually airing all the episodes they've paid for, even if they are already filmed. I mean, they didn't even bother to air all six episodes of Drive or the second season of Tru Calling. This hedging over broadcasting all of Dollhouse is worrisome at best.

“...to have four tentpoles for next year, and if we surprise ourselves, a Friday night...”

It's nice to see that they have such faith in their own product. [/sarcasm] If they didn't think these shows would find an audience, why did they pick them up in the first place?

emmjay2662:

Just let people watch the dang show! People seeing Dollhouse = People tuning in week after week. It's a given.

Joss' reputation has just continued to snowball as one of the all-time greats (kind of a modern day Shakespeare) and all of us who've experienced his shows for ourselves are gonna tune in for Dollhouse. He's the rare gifted story-teller with both artistic and commercial chops and all FOX needs to do is expose the show to the widest number of people, and there are gonna be loads of takers.

Look at what Whedon accomplished with the Blog Along webisodes. That medium was non-existent as a vehicle (at least profit-wise) until Joss dabbled with it and peeps tuned in in record numbers.

Having an internet presence for the show is huge. Letting viewers sample and experience it early on, in their own time, will generate a buzz and let the show take off.

Make sure Dollhouse is available on hulu. Such a show is MADE for the hulu format which allows potential viewers to sample a show for free at any time convenient to them, before making the commitment in their hectic schedules or before supplanting other shows or plans with a new debut.

When it comes to Joss' tv chops, I will readily admit that I am a syndication baby. All my affection for Joss Whedon has come from catching his shows during odd hours on their FX, TNT, and Sci Fi broadcasts after initially dismissing them when they were on air. The only reason I wasn't a devoted viewer along with I never bothered to tune in; thought it was low-concept and a joke; couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams that they'd be the best, most must-see television I've seen in my entire life. Those of us who are less adventurous and open-minded about our tv picks will miss out if we don't get a chance to stumble into the mesmerizing brilliance in our own ways...

Fox can succeed with a hit if they just make sure the early episodes are available, in different mediums, at convenient and multiple time slots.

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