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.”