Skein battle grounded in reality

After a fall launch disrupted by war and baseball, Fox execs are hoping for a midseason ratings boost from the net’s slate of critically acclaimed laffers and dramas — and an increasingly controversial quizzer called “The Chamber.”

During a sesh with reporters gathered in Pasadena for Fox’s portion of the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour, Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow on Friday pegged the net’s soft season-to-date performance on Fox having to push back its fall launch to November sweeps due to Sept. 11 and baseball playoffs.

“It was clearly quite a challenge,” he said, calling the late rollout “an unprecedented feat.” Grushow also admitted that the net’s numbers have been hurt by the fading ratings of veteran dramas “Ally McBeal” and “The X-Files,” as well its continuing Thursday woes.

Grushow and Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman pointed to the solid success of “The Bernie Mac Show” as well as midseason skeins “Greg the Bunny,” “The American Embassy” and “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” as potential building blocks for ratings growth.

Fox is also hoping to kick-start the reality genre with “The Chamber,” a sort-of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” meets “Fear Factor” quizzer in which players face environmental challenges such as 150 degree heat, simulated earthquakes and muscle-stimulators as they attempt to answer questions. Skein was slated to bow Sunday night, two days before ABC’s similarly formatted “The Chair.”

“Chair” producers Touchdown Prods. have filed a copyright infringement suit against Fox (Daily Variety, Jan. 4). On Friday, Fox and Dick Clark Prods. fired back, suing Touchdown for unfair business practices and trespassing.

“Touchdown and its agents… have engaged in a campaign to interfere with and unfairly compete against DCP and Fox’s development and production of ‘The Chamber,’ ” the suit charges. “Touchdown and its agents have attempted to obtain information about ‘The Chamber’ by trespassing upon DCP’s property without authorization and by attempting to poach an employee of ‘The Chamber’ solely to obtain an unfair competitive advantage.”

Specifically, Fox says two “Chair” producers sneeaked onto the set of “The Chamber” last week while the show was taping its first episode. Net believes the producers intended to use information learned from that visit to make “The Chair” more like “The Chamber.”

Suit, along with the religious fervor exhibited by ABC and Fox in trying to get their skein on the air first, had some critics wondering how viewers were served by such intense competish. Grushow doesn’t think Fox has gone too far but conceded such antics could get out of hand.

“There’s no question that you want to try to mess with your schedule as little as possible,” he said.

On other matters, Berman said Fox will air largely originals rather than repeats opposite NBC’s Olympics broadcasts. And Grushow conceded Fox went too far with some of its virtual advertising during last year’s World Series.

Fox also revealed that Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger will lend his voice to the fall 2002 season premiere of “The Simpsons.”

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