Fox's Programming Gamble

Will the late-fall debut, year-round launches and North Shore on Thursdays pay off?

Fox is watching its broadcast rivals slug it out in early fall. Betting on a different strategy, the network is holding its launches until November, after the World Series. The belated debut is part of Fox's new programming tactic, sprinkling shows over52 weeks. One of its architects, Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of Fox Networks Group, isn't worried. He directs the business sides of Fox and Fox Cable's entertainment and sports networks, such as FX, National Geographic and Fox Sports Net. Growingthe broadcast and cable numbers—and getting them to work together—is his mission. Vinciquerra talked to
Allison Romano about the company's long-term plays, the network's relationship with the NFL and why a late-season launch makes sense.

As part of Fox's year-round schedule, new shows debuted in June, but nothing hit big. Are viewers ready for this?

We introduced four scripted shows this summer, and two, North Shore
and Quintuplets, survived. That's a 50% batting average, and any network would be thrilled. The O.C.
didn't do that well last summer. It started with a 7 or 8 share and built to about 10.

But neither show has the buzz of The O.C.

Hopefully, we'll build them. We're going to put North Shore
behind The O.C.
on Thursday, and Quintuplets
behind That '70s Show.

Being quiet this fall shows in the ratings. Is the new Fox strategy hurting you?

We knew the weeks before the World Series would be difficult. Everyone else is introducing new programming. The flip side: We think October is going to be terrific. All the teams we want are in the playoffs. That will help thwart the growth of some of the other networks' shows. And it's a great platform.

What if November is too late?

It's not too late. We'll have an opportunity to present in a less cluttered environment. Share of voice is very important. We'll be the only one with new programs. We zig where they zag. In September, if we were competing against NBC, ABC and CBS, we'd get lost in the mix.

How do you capitalize on Arrested Development's Emmy?

We're going to develop a comprehensive marketing campaign to entice viewers. When Seinfeld
was in its growth stages, the media buyers all watched and wanted to buy it. We hope the same for Arrested Development.

A major criticism of Fox's lineup last fall was shows like Skin
and Joe Millionaire 2. They didn't mesh with the postseason-baseball audience. Have you corrected that?

Several are more compatible. [Medical drama] House
will target a little older audience, which is baseball, and reality shows The Partner
and Branson's BigAdventure
will have stronger male appeal.

When The O.C.
returns in November, it's up against Joey
at 8 p.m. How much of an opportunity is there for Fox?

Thursday night is a place we need to be. It's the biggest advertising night of the week for movies, automotive and retail. Joey
is an OK show, but it's not Friends. There are 10 or 11 rating points with 18-49s up for grabs. We don't need The O.C.
at a 15 or 16 share; we'll be happy with 8 or 10. Hopefully, North Shore
will do better in the time period.

It's still early in the season, but how do you size up your competitors?

CBS's three CSIs are terrific. Their biggest surprise is Without a Trace, which may break out. NBC has to be happy it didn't completely collapse. ABC did well with Lost
and Extreme Makeover.

aside, a lot of reality shows are soft. Is the appetite for them waning?

There is clearly an audience, but it's being spread over so many new shows on broadcast and cable. It's going to erode. Over time, we'll have less. The good shows will survive.

Except for The O.C.
and 24, dramas have been a problem spot for Fox. How do you fix it?

You have to get a show on at the right time and with the right promotional campaign. House
is different; it's more character development. We hope Athens, from O.C.
creator Josh Schwartz, will be equally successful. We think North Shore
will develop into a good drama.

American Idol
returns in January. When Idol
is on, ratings soar. When it signs off, Fox suffers. Is Fox too reliant on its superstar?

You can say that about any network. You need the promotional platform. We intentionally grouped some of our new shows in January because we can promote them aggressively and help create year-round programming.

What impact is Fox's year-round–programming strategy having on ad sales?

We're five months in, so we don't have the answers yet. In a year, we'll know more. It helps that we can tell advertisers we'll introduce fresh programming in January and June. For NBC to tell people what will be on next spring is hard.

Mitsubishi is pulling ad dollars out of broadcast prime time. Do you fear other big advertisers will defect?

Mitsubishi may be making a huge mistake. There is only one place where you can get a significant number of eyeballs at one time, and that's broadcast television. There is only one place to get American Idol-
or Survivor-type numbers.

You also sell Fox's cable group to advertisers. How do you reconcile the competing agendas?

They are complementary. There is a place for both broadcast and cable and a significant business. We can provide a broad audience to advertisers through broadcast and niche audiences through cable networks. Speed Channel, National Geographic—these networks target specific audiences. They all work for different advertisers.

Fox's reality shows are heavy on product placement. How much is too much?

It's common sense. If it looks like a show is being negatively impacted, we won't do it. But product placement is here to stay. We've been aggressive on our cable networks, like Best Damn Sports ShowPeriod
on FSN, and in our Fox Sports NFL pregame show. You try to maintain a balance of pleasing customers and viewers.

Fox is finally broadcasting sports and prime time in high-def. Why the wait?

Early on, we were implementing the HD structure and educating producers. We waited until people were seriously interested in HD sets. We have six NFL games a week, and CBS has up to three. We're equal to everyone else on prime time. By waiting, we did it for a lot less money and have better technology.

Everyone is trying to handicap the next NFL TV deal. How far will Fox go to keep its pro-football package?

The NFL is extremely important to Fox. They understand we don't do well financially with the NFL. CBS says it does by some magic accounting, but we know what the revenues are and what they pay. But the NFL also understands that, for the health of the game and the business, it can't come looking for huge increases.

News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch wants to launch new cable channels. When will Fox start a national sports channel?

If the right opportunity arose, like Sunday Night Football
and the NFL did not start a bidding war, we'd give it a shot.