Fox Hopes Spring Eternal Yet Again

Nov 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

All bets are off for Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman this year.

Last fall, ABC programming chief Steve McPherson bet Mr. Beckman a $400 bottle of wine that Mr. Beckman’s fourth-ranked Fox network would once again make a spectacular spring comeback to win the season from Mr. McPherson’s own top-rated ABC.

Feeling less than certain about Fox’s prospects, Mr. Beckman accepted the unusual wager, in which each man bet against his own network.

By the end of May, Mr. Beckman was out $400, yet riding high on another season victory.

This season, however, the odds against Fox are stacked even higher. Season to date among adults 18 to 49, Fox is down 9 percent from 2005 (which itself was down 16 percent from 2004), according to Nielsen Media Research. For the first eight days of the sweeps, Fox is down 14 percent and in fourth place while ABC continues to lead.

That doesn’t mean Fox won’t resurrect its ratings in another springtime miracle. Analysts, in fact, are betting on it-though once again Mr. Beckman is not.

“I don’t anticipate winning the season,” said Mr. Beckman, who is executive VP of strategic program planning. “But I have to believe as we come down the stretch we will be very competitive.”

Industry experts are somewhat more confident. Asked whether Fox will still win, Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for Carat North America, gave a quick affirmative.

“Granted, this year they’ve had more of a fall-off, but [most of] the other networks are down too,” she said. “Last year `American Idol’ and `24′ tweaked their formulas in just the right ways, and this year NBC won’t have football in the spring.”

Yet Brad Adgate, VP of research for Horizon Media, was more concerned. “They’re putting a lot of expectations on the continued audience growth of `American Idol’ to get them out of this typical fourth-quarter hole that they’ve dug themselves into,” he said. “And how much longer can you ask [`Idol’] to do that?”

Even for a network accustomed to meandering in fourth place during the fall while the other broadcasters fire away with their best shows, this fall has been a struggle.

Major-league baseball gave Fox the lowest-rated World Series to date. Of Fox’s six new fall shows, not one has broken from the pack. And the dismal return on one former hit, “The O.C.,” resulted in a network television ratings rarity: a premiere episode that set a record low for an entire series to date.

Mr. Beckman said only two of the new shows-the hostage negotiator dramedy “Standoff” and the Brad Garrett sitcom `”Til Death”-will likely still be on the schedule come January.

“We took three returning dramas and put them at 8 p.m. and gave three new dramas the lead-in,” he said. “The end results were not as encouraging as we hoped they would be. We hoped that baseball, with the right teams, we might be able to talk to viewers who might actually watch the shows.

“At the end of the quarter we’ll be fairly close to where we were last year.”

Fox debuted “House” in fall 2004 and in 2005 introduced “Prison Break.” As for which, if any, of the fall dramas might break out, Mr. Beckman noted that “House” took months to gain traction and that “Standoff” has shown some growth potential.

As for “The O.C.,” the show was moved back to its usual Wednesday night slot last week after a disastrous Thursday night premiere and unfortunately still pulled the same rating, a 1.5.

“We knew it was going to get hammered,” Mr. Beckman said. “We felt there would be enough of an audience to keep the ember burning in that time period. We’ll probably make the decision to keep it on Wednesday for rest of the quarter.”

Conversely, sweeps leader ABC is stuck with the opposite problem. The network is riding high for the moment, but analysts are concerned that come spring, “Lost,” is going to take a ratings beating.

This season the network opted to split the season between six consecutive episodes in the fall and 16 in the spring. But with the first episodes off 24 percent from last year, it’s unclear whether such a strategy is going to pay off.

“The [scheduling] poster child for serialized shows is `24,”‘ Mr. Beckman said. “A show like `Lost’ or `Jericho’ is taking a risk … and when it comes back, they’re going up against `American Idol’ every week.”