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Fox Plots Counterattack

Aug 4, 2003  •  Post A Comment

While the broadcast networks are gearing up to launch the majority of their fall schedules during premiere week, Fox has been quietly plotting a counterattack.
Hampered by Major League Baseball, which will push the start of its fall season to late October, Fox will put its year-round programming strategy to the test by airing the finales of “Temptation Island 3” and “Paradise Hotel” against new-show premieres on the other networks.
“We’re making some changes to how we end the summer this year,” Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said. “Both `Paradise Hotel’ and `Temptation Island’ are scheduled to conclude during the traditional `Premiere Week’-just before we begin to cover the baseball playoffs and World Series. We hope to use these big finales to our advantage, keeping us competitive at a time when everyone else is launching their new series.”
A six-episode run of “Temptation Island 3” will begin Thursday, Aug. 28 at 9 p.m. and end Sept. 25, just as the other networks are premiering their new fall series. “Paradise Hotel,” which has been airing twice a week all summer, is slated to crown a winner during premiere week.
In the past Fox has aired a hodgepodge of specials, movies and stunts leading up to baseball, a policy that became a big issue only two years ago, when Fox became the sole postseason rights holder. Before that, Fox shared the postseason with ABC, so it wasn’t as disruptive to the schedule.
Last year Fox debuted new series in the traditional premiere week before baseball playoffs began. However, only two episodes of each aired before they were pre-empted for several weeks by baseball. By the time the series returned, Fox had to relaunch them. None of the series ever found an audience, and they were canceled.
In response, Ms. Berman and Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow said at the beginning of this year that they would launch scripted series in the summer and develop year-round to combat the problem. Starting new shows later in the season gives Fox the added benefit of having more original episodes to run during the season when its competitors are running repeats.
New drama “The O.C.”-which debuts Tues., Aug. 5 from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m.-is a key piece of that year-round strategy. Seven episodes of the series are scheduled to air before baseball interrupts the schedule.
“The performance of `The O.C.’ this summer is important because we want to see how a scripted show performs in the summer that isn’t a pre-existing success like `90210′ [which moved to summer after airing during the regular season] or a spinoff, which essentially is what `Melrose Place’ was,” Mr. Grushow said. “Practically speaking, `The O.C.’ represents a standing start for us. If we can have some success-and the bar isn’t all that high-then I think you’re going to see far more scripted shows launched next summer from this network.”
Fox this summer tried to launch a scripted show, quirky cop drama “Keen Eddie,” in the same time slot. “Eddie” disappointed with an average 2.2 Nielsen Media Research rating and 6 share and 5.1 million total viewers. Mr. Grushow and Ms. Berman said they think “The O.C.” will fare better because it’s broader than “Eddie.”
“We learned some lessons with `Keen Eddie,”’ Mr. Grushow said. “We tried it. We’ve done the ultimate market research. We put a lot of episodes on the air, and not enough people showed up. I think it lacks a level of accessibility that’s needed to be successful on this broadcast network. I don’t believe that’s true of `The O.C.”’
“The O.C.” will have the same lead-in as “Eddie” did with “American Juniors,” which has averages a 3.2/11 in adults 18 to 49 and 8.4 million total viewers. Mr. Grushow said that show’s audience should be more compatible with “The O.C.” because it attracts a strong young-adult and teen audience and is especially strong with women 18 to 34.
Experimenting with “Eddie” gave Ms. Berman a new appreciation for launching original scripted series in the summer. “I have a better picture of how difficult it is to do,” she said. “But you’re talking about changing an industry that has been doing something the same for more than 50 years, so we need to give the audience time to buy into the fact that these are not summer castaways.”
Ms. Berman said Fox has realistic goals for “The O.C.” They hope to expose the series to a wide audience before the season starts in hopes that viewers will return when the show moves to Thursday nights at 9 p.m. after baseball ends.
Scheduling “The O.C.” and “Tru Calling”-two younger skewing dramas-on Thursday nights against NBC’s and CBS’s lineups are part of a longer-term strategy to gain a toehold on Thursday nights, so Fox intends to be patient with them, she said.
“If you look at our strategy on Thursday night for the past couple of years, it hasn’t been terribly successful,” she said, “so maybe that will give [doubters] some belief that this other strategy might be one that’s worth putting up with. I’m concerned about being patient when you’re in the difficult days of competitive sweeps. But our goal is to try to be patient.”
Thursday night is one element in a longer-term plan to wrest the 18 to 49 season crown from incumbent NBC after “Friends” finishes its run this season, Mr. Grushow said. Fox ended the season with a 4.3 rating in adults 18 to 49, two-tenths of a ratings point away from NBC’s 4.5.
“There’s more strategic thinking going on around here than ever before,” Mr. Grushow said. “A lot of that is attributable to the fact that we know `American Idol’ is going to be around for many years to come. We know that it’s going to be on come January every season, and we can really build around it.”
Fox’s building blocks include a two-year deal with Ashton Kutcher to stay with “That ’70s Show” and a multiyear deal with Rocket Science Laboratories-producers of “Joe Millionaire” and “Temptation Island”-to develop shows exclusively for Fox.
Fox also will continue its year-round strategy. Ms. Berman said Fox aims to announce some pilot pickups by the end of summer.
While Fox has won the February and May sweeps in adults 18 to 49, critics charge that without “American Idol” on its schedule, Fox would have finished the season with a 3.8 rating tied for second in 18 to 49 with ABC and CBS.
Fox’s answer: Get used to it.
“You’re dealing with a lot of sour grapes,” Mr. Grushow said. “It would be like me sitting here saying where would NBC be without Thursday night? Where would CBS be without `Survivor’? The fact of the matter is we were able to create big hit television shows. It’s not like `American Idol’ is a show that’s going to air twice and go away.”
Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience analysis at Magna Global USA, said Fox is setting itself up as a legitimate challenger to NBC in the next few years, but a lot will depend on NBC’s ratings declining.
“I like what Fox is doing,” Mr. Sternberg said. “With Fox, every two years or so people start saying they are about to fall apart and ratings are going to take a nose dive and then they always come up with something that works-one or two programs that hit really boosts their schedule because they have 15 hours to program instead of 22 like the other Big 4 networks.
“They’ve been very successful at coming up with shows at the exact time they need them.”
Fox’s development this season has been widely praised by critics and the advertising community. In TelevisionWeek’s summer Critics Poll, Fox was named the broadcaster that had improved its schedule the most for fall.
One of Fox’s goals this year was to return to its roots and create shows that will appeal to the large number of young women who had deserted the network after shows such as “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Party of Five,” “Melrose Place” and “Ally McBeal” ended.
Four of Fox’s five new dramas-“Skin,” “The O.C.,” “Still Life” and “Wonderfalls”-are serialized, character-based shows, going against the grain of the procedural dramas that have become
popular in prime time.
“Serialized stuff is working very well for us,” Ms. Berman said. “Look at `24.’ The reality genre is also very serialized. We really do think that part of what’s necessary on our air is to appeal to young adults, and part of that form is the soap. It has worked in the past here, and we’re anxious to see if it can work again.”