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Big six overview: FOX

Net sports bright, new batch aimed at demo bull's-eye

This could be the season Fox finally comes in first.

Sure, it’s a long shot. And execs at the one-time fourth-rated network refuse to even entertain the notion publicly. But if its frosh contenders live up to their preseason hype, and none of the net’s returning anchors take a serious dive, there’s a real chance Fox could end the 2001-02 season No. 1 in the only category advertisers really care about: adults 18-49.

“I think it’s going to be neck and neck, down to the wire with NBC and Fox for first among adults 18-49,” says Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience analysis for Gotham-based ad firm Magna Global USA.

Key to the net’s chances are three shows: The new college laffer “Undeclared,” real-time thriller “24” and the second edition of last season’s reality smash “Temptation Island.” Equally important is the net’s new Wednesday laff lineup.

“Undeclared” and “24” are winning raves from many critics as, respectively, the best new comedy and drama of the season. If those reviews translate into ratings, Fox will have a very solid Tuesday night sked — as well as two new franchise players.

However, it won’t be that easy.

College comedies have rarely played well with TV auds, and the producers of “Undeclared” are the same folks behind NBC’s late “Freaks & Geeks” — a critical darling that lasted less than a year.

As for “24,” some skeptics believe the show’s real-time serialized plotline — the action unfolds an hour per episode over 24 weeks — could make viewers reluctant to commit to an entire season or to tune in again if they miss a few episodes.

Sexy secret

Fox’s biggest not-so-secret weapon, however, could be “Temptation Island 2.”

The first edition of the sex-and-surf reality skein was a surprise hit and a cultural phenom. Fox has expanded the show to 11 episodes and scheduled it on one of TV’s most watched nights: Thursday.

Fox has struggled on Thursdays for more than five years. If “TI2” simply does decent numbers, Fox will have greatly strengthened its hand by shoring up one of its most glaring weak spots.

Likewise, the net needn’t do much to improve its standing on Wednesday. Fox is making an all-out laff attack on the night, shifting Tuesday hit “Titus” to 9 p.m. to anchor a block of four sitcoms. A potential sleeper, airing at 9:30 p.m., is a half-hour family sitcom built around “The Original Kings of Comedy” co-star Bernie Mac.

Fox is also taking a risk with a new Friday sked, moving “Dark Angel” from Tuesdays into an 8 o’clock slot that hasn’t worked for Fox since “The X-Files” aired there.

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