Once burned, twice shy

Aiming to prevent Rick-Darva debacles, Fox sets scripted shows to fill seven holes in schedule, assesses reality

Eager to avoid a repeat of last season's poor start (from its "now you see it, now you don't" sitcom Action to the ratings slumps of Ally McBeal), FOX executives last week pitched critics on shows from big names like James Cameron and David Kelley and promised "wonderful" episodes of Ally.

But in contrast to the reality-heavy sessions at other networks (see page 27), FOX wasn't preaching about a possible Millionaire or Survivor up its sleeve during the Television Critics Association tour in Pasadena. After being once burned by the Darva and Rick fiasco and the "shockumentary" shows that became a running joke, the network once awash in reality is twice shy.

Consequently, FOX Television Group Chairman Sandy Grushow and FOX Broadcasting Company Entertainment President Gail Berman promoted different genres for their seven programming holes-the largest void of any of the networks. In addition to filling Action's slot, FOX needs to find substitutes for, among others, the Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle Time of Your Life and its canceled signature shows Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five.

Electing not to compete with the Olympics in September, FOX will not introduce its first new series, Dark Angel, until Oct. 3.

After praising Fox's two legit hits, mid-season comedies Malcolm in the Middle and Titus, Grushow asked, "Are we exactly where we want to be? Not yet. I will say that we feel really good about the series we'll be launching in the fall. Among them, Darren Star's The Street."

If there were any theme in Fox's lineup, it was a supernatural one, with Grushow plugging Freakylinks (from the Blair Witch Project producers), James Cameron's Dark Angel and Twighlight Zone-ish Night Visions, which join the soon David Duchovny-less X-Files.

Just two weeks into her new job as Fox's entertainment chief (arguably the network business'.

"I know some of you have raised concerns that the show took on too many flights of fancy. But the scripts and stories I've read so far this new season are wonderful," she insisted.

No TCA presentations were reality-free, and Fox's was no exception.

One critic, noting the "unreality" of the presentation, spoke up: "Sandy, you didn't mention reality programming at all. Do you guys feel that somehow you missed the boat on this? You were in the forefront of reality, for better or for worse."

Grushow responded: "Specials that were in the mode of When Animals Attack were getting killed in New York. There was no money in the marketplace for those kinds of shows; those types of specials were hurting the FOX brand. But by no means did we get out of the reality business."

In August, FOX is rolling out a cameras-in-the-classroom series, American High, which Berman insisted "doesn't deal at all in going over the line. Reality has a place on this schedule when it's done right: not blood, not guts and not shockumentaries."

Yet knowing Fox's history, Berman added, "I do think this is an issue that each network needs to come to grips with now. We are taking a hard look at what is really acceptable for broadcast television."

FOX now enlists the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers to help it go over potential reality programs with a fine-toothed comb, performing background checks to the fullest extent.

But while reality has its pitfalls, Fox's scripted shows face challenges as well.

David E. Kelley, who took a hit this season with Snoops, can do wrong. And with Boston Public, he will again try to spread himself over three series (Boston, Ally and The Practice).

Also, Titanic's James Cameron is a major investment. The first episode of his Dark Angel is reported to have cost a whopping $10 million. That's ultra-pricey for a pilot, but then again, at one time he was being prematurely buried over the price of Titanic. It's also set to compete with The WB's Angel, which goes after the same sci-fi-hungry young-male demo.

Grushow insisted Cameron "has been incredibly responsible. He brought the [two-hour] pilot in on time and on budget. I was told that [CBS'] The Fugitive as an hour cost $6 million. I can't verify that, but we feel very good about our investment."

Carsey Werner has taken its untitled John Goodman project (which starred Goodman as a gay dad) back to the drawing board to completely revamp its premise, but Goodman's character will stay as is.

Then there is The X-Files. Fans must adapt to David Duchovny's exit after 11 episodes and the addition of Robert Patrick (who played Terminator 2's creepy policeman).

And a highly touted mid-season entry from Michael Crichton is still lacking format details.