Quick Fox jumps to fill fall holes

'Malcolm' and 'Titus' aid net in avoiding defeat

Unlike Bart Simpson, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Broadcasting Co. has grown up — but maturity ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. The one-time renegade web is coming off a season that bordered on a complete disaster.

The good news: A late-season boost from newcomers “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Titus” helped Fox avert a total meltdown. Still, the coming fall promises a whole new set of problems for Sandy Grushow and Gail Berman, the two execs now charged with getting the network out of the hole.

“They’re in a weird position,” says TN Media’s Stacey Lynn Koerner of Fox’s woes. “They’re an established network now, and they’re having the same problems established networks have.”

Most urgently, that means filling holes left by departed series.

In addition to “90210,” Fox also lost “Party of Five” last spring and “Melrose Place” the year before — three of its drama pillars. Its other two big gun hours — “The X-Files” and “Ally McBeal” — are on a downward ratings curve, with “X” facing the departure of star David Duchovny midseason.

To save the patient, Grushow last May announced a new sked that amounts to the television equivalent of an amputation. Sixty percent of Fox’s sked will either be new series or old shows in new time slots. Save for 9 p.m. Monday (“Ally”), there’s something new in every Fox slot Monday through Friday.

Web execs are counting on three shows to help get things back on track: David E. Kelley’s school-based drama “Boston Public”; “Titanic” helmer Jim Cameron’s sexy sci-fi drama “Dark Angel”; and “Normal, Ohio,” a comedy starring John Goodman (“Roseanne”) as a gay dad.

The latter project has the longest odds, having already undergone extensive retooling. But Fox insiders like the direction “Normal” is heading in, and are cautiously optimistic that giving the show a “Malcolm in the Middle” lead-in for two months will help it become a Wednesday success.

The success or failure of “Boston Public” depends on whether Kelley’s writing matches his best work on “Ally” and “The Practice” — or his less impressive output for last season’s stinkeroo “Snoops.”

“Dark Angel,” meanwhile, is already being heavily hyped as a male-friendly actioner with a stunning siren (Jessica Alba) at its center. There’s no real drama competish from the Big Three Tuesdays at 9 p.m., and the move of “That ’70s Show” and “Titus” into the 8-9 p.m. Tuesday hour should give Cameron’s “Angel” a solid lead-in. Show’s biggest threat will come from the WB’s sophomore hit “Angel.”

As for Fox’s other freshman hopefuls, the Darren Star-produced sudser “The Street” has plenty of internal backers but a killer death slot (9 p.m. Wednesday). The Friday duo of “Freakylinks” and “Night Visions” will try to scare up some Nielsen action on a night Fox once owned among young men.

Most industry analysts think Fox will continue to decline this fall, though the losses will likely be far smaller than last year’s double-digit dives. Monday and Tuesday nights rep the best hope for some traction; Thursdays (which will feature a hodgepodge of specs and movies) and Fridays could be painful.

Still, if Fox can get through the fall with a minimal of bleeding, history says it’ll be able to find at least one midseason success on which to build for 2001-02.

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