Fox’s on deck circle

Specs, pics pinch hit for delayed fall sked

HOLLYWOOD — Forced to delay most of its series debuts until after the World Series, Fox hopes to avoid singing the fall blues by stunting with a mix of original reality specials, made-for-TV flicks and theatricals.

Fox execs say the strategy is necessary to keep the net in business while its major rivals premiere their new and returning series.

It won’t be easy: For the first time, Fox will be the sole network airing baseball playoffs — including both league championships — this fall. Before Fox picked up the entire Major League Baseball package this year, NBC shared the playoff preemption burden.

Back then, with two nets staggering their launches, everyone had room to breathe during the crowded fall rollouts. This year, Fox execs wonder whether viewers will still be eager to sample new shows in late October.

“It’s going to be tough, when you’re the odd person out, not being able to get your series going,” said Fox exec VP of strategic program planning Preston Beckman. “We’re in a more difficult position than the other networks because of baseball. It makes it tough for us to think about a traditional premiere week. But we don’t think we’ll be left at the starting gate this year.”

Instead, the net has devised a temporary plan to avoid simply airing repeats opposite the other guys’ original programming in the weeks leading up to the baseball playoffs and World Series.

That includes premiering telepic “The Rats” on Monday, Sept. 17 — the first night of premiere week. Pic stars Vincent Spano in a story about evil rats who overrun New York.

To promote “The Rats” (formerly titled “The Colony”), Fox will air its broadcast premiere of 1998’s 2-hour “The X-Files” feature film on Friday, Sept. 14, as well as a repeat run of “Independence Day” on Sunday, Sept. 16.

Specs instead of drama

Fox will avoid airing low-rated repeats of “Boston Public” and “Ally McBeal” (which don’t premiere until Oct. 22) on subsequent Mondays as well. Instead, the net has a grab bag of specials in the works, including “Who Wants to Be a Princess.” “Princess,” which features 30 women competing to win a date with a real-life prince, may wind up on Monday, Sept. 24.

The net also taps its arsenal of theatricals over the first few Sundays of the season, starting with the broadcast premiere of “Rush Hour” on Sept. 23. Fox will also rebroadcast “Jerry McGuire” on Sept. 30. Most of the web’s Sunday lineup returns Nov. 4.

Meanwhile, as previously announced, Fox will go ahead and bow Tuesday laffers “That ’70s Show” and “Undeclared” starting Tuesday, Sept. 18. The net’s Wednesday 8 p.m. hour, consisting of comedy repeats and “Grounded for Life,” return the following night. The Friday night sked (“Dark Angel” and “Pasadena”) also bows during premiere week.

‘Love’ for reality

Fox also hopes the seductive reality skein “Love Cruise,” which airs on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. the first two weeks of the season, will keep the web competitive with its network brethren.

“We want to make that show an event the first two weeks of the season, which is why it’s on twice a week,” Beckman said.

The net is still mulling its Thursday plan, but is leaning toward movies or one-hour specials.

By avoiding series repeats the first few weeks of the season, Fox execs hope to avoid the net’s traditional fall ratings woes. In recent years, Fox has stumbled early out of the box, only to come back strong midseason with late bows such as “Malcolm in the Middle.”

“Internally, that’s something we’ve talked about quite a bit,” Beckman said. “That’s why it was important for us to come up with a game plan for those first two weeks.”

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