Good vibes, new eyes?

Programming remains edgy despite large-scale scheduling changes

Gail Berman needs to get lucky. Since taking over as president of Fox Entertainment barely two years ago, Berman has had no trouble re-establishing the network’s brand as a home for off-center yet accessible programming with at least the potential for mass appeal. Critics have responded by giving raves to a number of the net’s offerings, from Emmy magnet “24” to the short-lived “Pasadena.”

Nonetheless, Fox ended last season on a down note, suffering double-digit Nielsen declines. The chaos at ABC hogged most of the media spotlight, but Fox execs didn’t kid themselves: They ordered up a radically altered fall lineup, one that serves up 10 new shows and changes on every night of the week but Saturday.

Early critical buzz for several of Fox’s new offerings is again positive, but Berman says it’s going to take more than buzz to boost the net’s ratings. “It would be nice to get lucky. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, but you have to play the cards that your are dealt, keep moving and keep focused.”

In other words, no whining. Stay focused on producing quality programs, Berman’s theory goes, and the viewers will follow.

Fox’s chances for ratings growth got a major boost this summer with the emergence of “American Idol” as the hit of the moment. “Idol’s” smash success put Fox’s fall promos in front of millions of eyeballs, giving the net a big leg up in the coming onslaught of new program premieres.

Among the most heavily hyped of the new skeins is “Fastlane,” the McG-helmed actioner widely believed to be Fox’s best shot at a major hit this fall. Despite tough competish at 9 p.m. Wednesdays, “Fastlane” — along with returning hit “Bernie Mac” and Cedric the Entertainer’s promising sketch comedy show — should help Fox gain some Nielsen ground on the night.

Fox is also hoping the second season of “24” will get a big boost from a slew of Emmy noms, allowing the critically hailed drama to find an audience equal to its hype. And on Monday’s, execs are crossing their fingers that David E. Kelley’s “Girls Club” can bring back the female viewers who abandoned “Ally McBeal.”

Among the net’s biggest gambles is the move of established comedy hit “Malcolm in the Middle” to 9 p.m. Sunday, where it will face off against everything from HBO’s “The Sopranos” to ABC’s buzzworthy “Alias” as the anchor of a new three-hour all-laffer block.

“The competitions is almost all heavy dramas,” she says. “This is a classic counterprogramming move. We think we have the comedies to do it.”

Another looming question mark for Fox is Fridays, a night that has vexed net execs for years. This year, Fox will once again go after the sci-fi crowd with the mystery drama “John Doe” and Joss Whedon’s space Western “Firefly.”

Overall, Berman is betting that this year’s lineup will still garner mostly positive notices from critics, while also bringing in lots more viewers. “When we drafted this schedule, we had to weigh critical acclaim vs. accessibility,” she says. “We think we’ve come up with a good balance.”

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