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Once again, sly Fox

Grushow and Berman's edgy thrust burnishes Rupert's gold 11/12/2000 07:00:00 PM Eastern

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."

March