Fox will fire first fall salvo

Prexy Berman talks up projects at TCA tour

Fox is speeding up its 2003-04 series development cycle and staffing a select number of pilots before they’re picked up to series as part of a bold plan to launch a handful of frosh skeins in July and August — and potentially move the entire network TV business closer to a 52-week season.

Speaking to scribes Saturday at the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour, Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman said the web has given producers on two of the seven pilots already greenlit by Fox the OK to begin hiring writing staffs and pen up to six additional scripts — even though it’s possible the projects may never make it past the pilot stage.

Berman and Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow said more drama and comedy projects would be given pre-pickup script orders with an eye toward moving up the pilot production calendar by six to eight weeks, thus allowing the net the option of bowing several of its new comedies and dramas well before the usual September onslaught.

Berman declined to specify which projects had been given early script orders or how many shows would ultimately get the greenlight to staff up early. Grushow said the number was “very fluid; it could be five, it could be 10.” However, it’s expected Fox will spend at least $5 million to staff the projects and pay for the early scripts.

Mid-summer bows

“This network is determined to try to launch scripted television series in the middle of summer,” Grushow said. “And I don’t mean the shows that didn’t make the cut this summer. I don’t mean the shows that are specifically designed for summer. I mean shows that will get announced in May, at the upfronts, as being on the quote-unquote fall schedule, (instead) launching in the middle of summer . . . We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Grushow said.

Bows throughout year

While many details of the new strategy are still being hammered out, Fox execs would like to see new scripted programming bow throughout the year, with bursts in mid-summer, immediately after baseball, in January and in March. For this summer’s launches, net will rely on original unscripted skeins, July’s baseball All-Star Game and repeats of comedy staples like “That ’70s Show” and “The Simpsons” to provide a promo platform to support the summer scripted fare.

“It’s the responsibility of everyone in the entertainment division to figure out a way to maximize the benefits of baseball and to minimize the costs, the costs being the possible disruption of (the fall) schedule,” Grushow said.

Berman said the coin Fox is shelling out under its new strategy will be money well spent if it helps the net avoid the rocky fall starts of the past two years. “It’s a risk I think (is) worth taking,” Berman said. “We are trying to change the way we roll out programming, and in order to do that, it will require that we spend money.”

Grushow said Fox had already allocated funding for the early scripts as part of the net’s fiscal year 2003 budget, adding that higher-ups at Fox parent News Corp. were behind the idea as “part of the corporation’s continued investment in trying to create the next generation of (hit) Fox scripted shows.

“The belief is that that’s far more likely to happen if shows get launched in the middle of summer than if shows get launched two weeks before baseball, are preempted for four weeks and then come back and try to get their sea legs against the firmly entrenched competition in the November sweep,” he said. “It’s a small investment relative to the potential upside.”

Pattern of success

Grushow said the success of unscripted skeins such as “American Idol,” “Survivor” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” should serve as an important model for broadcasters.

“All of those shows happened over the summer,” he said, noting that, with the exception of “CSI,” there haven’t been any other “smash hit scripted television series created by the six broadcast networks combined” in the last four years.

“The problem is, everybody’s constrained by the conventions that exist in the television business,” Grushow said. One of those conventions — skipping original scripted fare in the summer because of the need to amortize production costs by airing repeats — may soon be headed the way of the DuMont web, he argued.

Won’t repeat mistake

“What everybody now realizes is that most shows don’t repeat at all, so there’s arguably more money to be made by taking some hits on your amort and actually going out there and trying to run original programs,” he said.

He did note, however, that repeats will still be a fact of summer life, particularly in June.

Grushow also believes Fox will be able to pull in significant ad dollars by putting fall season programming on the air during the summer.

“There’s an awful lot of money available in the marketplace during the third quarter,” he said, citing the slew of blockbuster theatrical releases as one example.

Fox is also finding advertisers much more receptive to shelling their wares on reality skeins, particularly in the light of such eye-popping stats as this one: Among affluent viewers aged 18-49, “Joe Millionaire” now ranks as the third most-watched show on television.

Elsewhere during Fox’s portion of the TCA press tour:

  • Net is mulling airing repeats of “Joe Millionaire” Thursdays at 8 during the February sweeps. In March, net also is considering repeats of “24” in the slot.

  • Fox announced timeslots and premiere dates for a number of midseason skeins. Family comedy “The Pitts” bows Sunday, March 30, at 9:30 p.m., while “Wanda at Large” shows up Wednesday, March 26, at 9:30. “Cedric the Entertainer Presents” returns to the latter slot in May, while “Andy Richter” wraps up its first season in the former slot March 16.

  • As expected, new laffer “Oliver Beene” will bow Sundays at 8:30 p.m., starting March 9, with “King of the Hill” returning to its 7:30 slot (Daily Variety, Jan. 17).

  • Jerry Lewis will be a guest voice on “The Simpsons” next season; “Alias” star Jennifer Garner has also recorded a guest turn on the animated staple. Exec producer Al Jean also said he was trying to lure “a current head of state (to the show). I won’t say which one.”

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