Once again, sly Fox
Grushow and Berman's edgy thrust burnishes Rupert's gold
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/12/2000 7:00:00 PM
It was about this time last year that the media and rival networks began eating FOX Broadcasting for breakfast, ripping its programming and its entertainment head, Doug Herzog; he lost his job.
Now with Sandy Grushow and Gail Berman running Fox's prime time operation, the network that Rupert built has come back to life and is getting on track as the edgy, young upstart it once was.
Even with some stumbles, for the first five weeks of this season compared with last year, FOX is up 18% in adults 18-49 (4.5 rating), 21% in total viewers (10.5 million) and another 18% in households (7.1 rating), according to Nielsen Media Research.
FOX has started the 2000-01 season by launching two dramas that have caught on with viewers-David E. Kelley's Boston Public and James Cameron's Dark Angel -and it has brought back the buzz to two veteran series: Ally McBeal and The X-Files. The arrival of comedies Malcolm in the Middle, Titus and the continued strength of That'70s Show has alleviated the network's half-hour sitcom shortage.
"The feeling in the hallways is very upbeat," says Berman, who replaced Herzog at the end of last season. "We have reason to be cautiously optimistic, and that's how we are taking it."
There is no reason to jump for joy just yet, though. FOX, which saw nearly everything it launched last fall fail out of the gate (think Action), started the season with holes to fill up and down its schedule. FOX launched four dramas and one comedy this fall, and it has used specials, movies and reality projects on Thursdays to help until midseason.
"We ended last season with three nights of television: We had Saturday, Sunday and Monday night," says one top News Corp. executive. "We had to fill Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and half of Friday, and that's a tremendous chore at any network."
While Boston Public and Dark Angel have both averaged more than 12 million viewers apiece, fellow new dramas The $treet and Freakylinks have struggled. The debut of The $treet got crushed by NBC's The West Wing on Nov. 1, and younger-skewing Freakylinks is having trouble holding its lead-in audience from Police Videos. New comedy Normal, Ohio held its own in its first outing, but the jury is still out on its long-term staying power.
Berman and FOX executives are hopeful that Darren Star's The $treet will catch on: The network spent a reported $5 million to promote it.
"Darren's shows on this network have historically taken a while to find their audience," says Berman. "Obviously, we would have liked to see it do better. I do think it's going to take time to build an audience for that kind of show, and we are going to be patient with it."
With the Saturday ( Cops and America's Most Wanted), Sunday and Monday lineups now intact, FOX executives are now pushing onward. Tuesday night, with the addition of Dark Angel and pairing of comedies That '70s Show and Titus, has produced strong results. Wednesday, however, remains a mystery.
The network is running two episodes of hit comedy Malcolm in the Middle for at least the November sweeps, once on Sunday and again on Wednesday nights, leading off the night. By midseason, Malcolm will likely wind up only on Wednesdays as the network's middle-of-the-week anchor. If Normal, Ohio and The $treet fail, comedies The Tick and Grounded for Life would be among the replacements.
Thursday is a continuing problem area for FOX. Various reality specials including Surprise Wedding have filled the void so far this season. Two projects, The X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen and an unnamed Michael Crichton-produced series, were originally slated for mid-season. But now it appears Crichton's series will not make it this year at all, and The Lone Gunmen will probably debut in place of repeats of The X-Files next spring. Reality projects Temptation Island, Boot Camp and Love Cruise will likely pinch-hit on Thursdays during the second half of the year. As for Fridays, Police Videos is not going anywhere, and, if Freakylinks can't cut it, anthology series Night Visions or reality project Million Dollar Mysteries will be ready.
Any way you cut it, FOX executives agree they are better off this season than last.
"I'm always cautious with my expectations, but right now we're feeling very good about four nights, and we'd certainly like to make that five nights by the time we get around to next fall, even six," says Berman. "Certainly, our goal is building, and I just think you have to do it one block at a time."
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