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‘Fear Factor’ flexes as frosh fall flat

Fox skeins give disappointing performances

Jaws dropped at Fox and sighs of relief likely went up everywhere else on Tuesday in reaction to surprisingly soft opening-night numbers for the Murdoch net’s Monday bows of “Next Joe Millionaire” and “Skin.”

The reality skein and drama, which were well-promoted during Fox’s coverage of postseason baseball, finished fourth in their timeslots, according to Nielsen — down a combined 12% from last year’s Monday openers (“Boston Public” and the new “Girls Club”).

“It’s a disappointment, no question,” Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman said. “We’re obviously experiencing a taste of what our other network colleagues have been facing this fall. These are tough times to reach the young-adult audience.”

But the poor start stung especially hard for Fox execs, given lofty expectations for the sequel to last season’s highest-rated series in adults 18-49 (“Joe Millionaire”) and the provocative drama from “CSI” producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

According to Nielsen, “Next Joe Millionaire” (3.2/9 in adults 18-49, 6.77 million viewers overall) ran fourth for its hour in 18-49, drawing less than one-third the rating of the original in January. Show ran second in persons 12-34 (3.2/10) but was overwhelmed in all categories by NBC’s potent “Fear Factor” (first-place 5.1/14 in 18-49, 11.92m).

And at 9, “Skin” (2.7/6 in adults 18-49, 6.30 million) placed fourth in key demos. If there’s an encouraging sign it’s that its rating was basically flat on the half-hour; also, Fox showed last summer with “The OC” that a drama can build from a modest premiere.

Monday’s Fox results are also significant from a competitive standpoint for the November sweep, as Fox was counting on “Joe Millionaire” and “Skin” to comprise more than one-fourth of its sked during the ratings period, which begins Oct. 30.

Despite the rough starts, Berman said the net plans to keep airing both shows twice a week as planned (“Millionaire” originals on Mondays and Tuesdays, and “Skin” on Mondays with a repeat on Thursdays).

But with “Next Joe Millionaire” not likely to post the mega-numbers its predecessor chalked up last year, Berman said the network will pay more attention to nurturing “Skin” over the coming weeks.

“We scheduled ‘Joe’ to generate eyes for our scripted shows, but it didn’t deliver what we hoped,” she said. “The key is to expose ‘Skin’ to as many people as possible so we know if we have a scripted asset here.”

Berman hopes the “Skin” double play will benefit the show much in the same way second-day repeats of “The OC” turned that show — which preemed to low Nielsens — into a hit.

Endless summer

“The lessons of the summer are: This is pretty much where we started with “The OC,’ ” she said. “We feel creatively that ‘Skin’ has really got tremendous storytelling going on inside of it.”

For now, net execs are moving on from the disappointing turn of events; Fox Entertainment Television Group chairman Sandy Grushow even called an impromptu staff meeting Tuesday morning to give what one insider described as a “pep talk.”

“Sandy led the way, saying that we’re in a business that’s changing,” Berman said. “We are in a universe where there are so many options, and we’re all trying to launch in a finitely small time period. That said, this is where we are at the moment, and you have to move on from here. You’ve got to accept it and go for it if you believe in your shows, which we do.”

Elsewhere in the universe

As for the other nets, NBC, in particular, must be happy about the turn of events on Monday: Not only did its chief competitor fail to storm out of the gate with its lineup but the Peacock’s own combo of a reality show and drama (“Fear Factor” and “Las Vegas”) were actually up slightly week-to-week.

“Las Vegas” (4.6/11 in adults 18-49, 11.49m) hit best-since-preem numbers and remains the season’s top-rated new drama in all key adult demos, placing third for its hour in 18-49 and second in 18-34 (3.8/10).

ABC won Monday in 18-49 with a strong delivery for “Monday Night Football” (7.3/20 in 18-49, 17.41m for Raiders-Chiefs). Also, a repeat of Thursday drama “Threat Matrix” (1.8/5 in 18-49) was up a tick from its original perf five nights earlier.

CBS took the night in female demos, adults 25-54 and total viewers, led by “CSI: Miami” (6.4/16 in 18-49, 17.55m). Also noteworthy was the excellent 95% retention for rookie comedy “Two and a Half Men” (5.3/12 in 18-49, 15.24m) coming out of “Everybody Loves Raymond” (5.6/14, 18.02m).

(Michael Schneider and Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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