In Depth

Fox Focuses on Stability in Upfront

January Scheduling Successes Carry Over

TV’s No. 1 network is likely to kick off upfront week by announcing a new schedule marked by stability—and maybe a surprise or two.

Fox, which is finishing its fifth season as the top-rated network among adults 18-49, is taking over NBC’s traditional Monday kickoff slot this year at the advertising market in New York. That means Fox won’t have the luxury of knowing all of its rivals’ plans before it makes its moves.

Doesn’t matter, said Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman. The network prefers to play its own game, and in any case, it laid out the tentpoles of its fall strategy months ago.

“We made some scheduling moves in January which more than likely will stay set in place in the fall,” Mr. Beckman said. “It should allow us to have a stronger fourth quarter and maybe not have to blow up our schedule in January.”

Mr. Beckman is referring to the shift of “House” to Mondays at 8 p.m. and of “Bones” to Thursdays at 8. Both moves have paid off, and with fall series “Fringe” and “Lie to Me” both on deck to return, Fox has islands of stability within its schedule.

The network’s desire for stability even extends to Friday nights, where it’s strongly considering keeping the low-rated “Dollhouse” on the air for another 13 episodes.

The network’s moves this season mean it heads into next fall with arguably its strongest lineup in years.

Recent years have seen Fox falling behind the other networks in the fall, when baseball preemptions have wreaked havoc with its launch plans. The network then comes from behind in January, when “American Idol” and “24” make their returns.

With a roster of solid performers likely to be back on Fox this fall, there’s a good chance the network could actually be competitive in the fourth quarter this year. That could make it harder for other networks to catch Fox in the second half of the season.

While stability may be the watchword at Fox, that doesn’t mean the network’s announcement will be drama-free. Insiders indicate Fox may be ready to take some big chances.

“There will be a couple of surprises,” one executive said.

There was buzz last week that one such shocker could be a decision to bring back summer hit “So You Think You Can Dance” in-season, perhaps as soon as September or October. The network already has started casting for another season of the show, and Fox could use a strong reality tentpole in the fall.

Another possibility is the new Mike Fleiss series “More to Love,” which has been slated to air this summer.

Fox reality chief Mike Darnell also is fond of secret projects unveiled at the last minute.

Fox’s big moves this past season included shifting “House” to an 8 p.m. anchor slot, first on Tuesday and then, this winter, on Monday nights. The play gave critical support to newcomer “Fringe.” It also allowed Fox to slot “Lie to Me” behind “American Idol” for several weeks, helping that show earn a second season.

The network wants to continue to offer solid lead-in support to nascent hits “Fringe” and “Lie to Me,” Mr. Beckman said.

“We’re trying to find a way to continue to nurture them,” Mr. Beckman said.

Toward that end, “We really tried to minimize the amount of new product we’re putting on in the fall,” he added.

Headed into upfront week, Fox already had most of its puzzle pieces assembled.

Two shows have been assured spots on Fox’s fall lineup for months: Musical comedy “Glee” and animated half-hour “Cleveland.” The latter will almost certainly go on Sunday nights; the former could fit on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

Series greenlit in the last few days include action hour “Human Target,” drama “Past Lives” and comedy “Sons of Tucson.” One or more of those projects seems likely to bow in the second half of the season.

Mr. Beckman wouldn’t discuss scheduling specifics in advance of the upfront. But he did indicate Fox was planning to consider all nights of the week as worthy of big programming—including Thursday, a night that until recently had frustrated the network.

If Fox is feeling confident about its development, some industry observers believe it might try a new drama Thursday at 9 p.m., most likely behind “Bones.” With CBS’ “CSI” weakened, and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” down markedly, this could be the time for Fox to get aggressive in the hour.

“We’re looking at Thursdays differently this year,” Mr. Beckman admitted. “We’re not sitting there programming Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights and then saying we’ll worry about Thursdays later.”

Whatever Fox does, however, look for the network to remain as stable as possible.

“We really tried to minimize the amount of new product we’re putting on in the fall,” Mr. Beckman said.