Fox bent on changing the sked game

This article was updated at 10:00 p.m.

Fox is making good on its promise to throw out the primetime playbook and shift to a strategy of year-round original programming.

Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman Monday announced plans for what may be network TV’s most ambitious warm-weather slate yet: five new shows to launch in June, as well as the return of reality hit “The Simple Life” — all just days after the official 2003-04 season wraps.

Several nets, including Fox, have sought to reduce repeats in summer by beefing up on reality shows. Indeed, CBS and NBC have already announced summer skeds with four to five hours of firstrun unscripted fare, while Fox will bow “The Simple Life 2” and Mark Burnett’s “The Casino.”

What separates Fox from the pack: Starting June 8, net will premiere at least four original scripted skeins, all of which were developed specifically for the 2004-05 season.As expected, the two new comedies are the Andy Richter family laffer “Quintuplets” and “Method & Red,” a half-hour starring hip-hop heroes Method Man and Redman as new residents of a very white neighborhood.

On the drama front, Fox will bow the Hawaii-set sudser “North Shore” and Tom Fontana-produced legal drama “The Jury.”

In years past, such shows would likely be saved for September, but Fox execs have declared the idea of a fall launch extinct.

“This is a redefinition of the TV season, and we’re ready to roll it out in June,” Berman told Daily Variety. “We will be the first network unveiling a real yearlong schedule. Circumstances pushed us forward, and if there is success, we’re quite sure others will follow.”

Dodge ball

The circumstances to which Berman referred include Fox’s contract with Major League Baseball, which forces the net to preempt much of its primetime lineup in October — right as other nets are promoting their new shows.

While Fox has been working on a way to better blend baseball into its programming mix for the past two years, net’s efforts were stepped up dramatically last fall. That’s when Fox development chief Craig Erwich told scribes the network wanted scripts for new shows in before Thanksgiving so that it would have the ability to greenlight shows early and launch much of its new sked in the early summer (Daily Variety, Oct. 30).

While all scribes didn’t make the early deadline, Fox sent a message it was serious about year-round development. Indeed, the net is already busy ordering scripts for new projects — just weeks before its upfront presentation to advertisers.

Berman said Fox’s upfront will have a different feel, with the network unveiling more than one schedule grid as it briefs advertisers on its year-round plan.

New shows are now expected to bow in June, July and January; veteran skeins will launch mostly in November, with some back in September.

Berman will take advertisers through the whole year, pointing out which shows will launch when, all the way through June 2005. It’s also expected Fox will launch some skeins in spring 2005 and have them continue through the early summer — thus avoiding the finale syndrome, in which a slew of series’ seasonal swan songs signals viewers to head to cable for originals.

Seasonal approach

Berman hopes some programming will become known to viewers as seasonal fare — think “American Idol” in January, baseball in October or “Simple Life” in summer. Other skeins, like “The OC” last year, will likely bridge the gap between seasons.

“When you start looking at things from a year-round point of view, things (like baseball) become full-on assets and not just challenges,” Berman said.

As a result, some of the skeins launching in June will, if successful, get back orders for nine or more episodes, while some will simply become summer staples.

“It’s a revolution and an evolution at the same time,” Berman said. “We have to see how the rollout goes.”

Year-round programming push is also a reflection of changes in the programming landscape. Cablers continue to gain aud share by launching skeins throughout the year, making the concept of a fall rollout — with dozens of skeins bowing at once — anachronistic.

Fox is also acknowledging shifts in viewer habits by taking the unusual step of offering same-week repeats of all its new shows, a strategy designed to increase sampling of the frosh skeins. “North Shore,” for example, will premiere on Mondays, with the same episode airing four days later on Friday.

A similar strategy helped Fox’s “The OC” find its aud last summer.

If Fox finds a new show is strong enough that it doesn’t need to be double-pumped, net may then use the encore timeslot to launch another new show.

Fox is also scheduling fresh episodes of “Oliver Beene” on Sundays, while a few segs of “Bernie Mac” this summer will be firstrun. Net also has several reality shows in the works –“The Complex: Malibu,” for example — that could get a summer berth.

Top media buyers, who embrace the idea of a year-round TV schedule, say they were briefed by Fox in recent days regarding the specifics of the June rollout and liked what they saw and heard.

MindShare North America director of programming Peter Tortorici — a former CBS Entertainment topper — said Fox’s approach is good for the network broadcast biz.

‘Old model dead’

“The old model of basically turning out the lights in the summer is dead and gone,” Tortorici said.

Fox, along with other broadcast nets, believes advertisers are open to paying higher summer rates if the audience is large enough, and that categories such as fast food and movies are particularly keen to reach out to consumers in June, July and August. But the going will prove tough, considering viewership traditionally drops off dramatically.

Fox’s crop of June shows won’t necessarily reveal how well a network can expect to sell a summer show, since June was sold during last year’s upfront according to gross ratings points. Still, Fox may be able to renegotiate leftover scatter rates if the shows exceed ratings guarantees for their particular timeslots.

And there is no doubt that Fox’s June rollout will prove a testing ground for the 2005 summer ad market.

“Hopefully, more money will flow to us next June because media buyers will know we have original programming and we’ll be in a position to deliver audiences for them,” said Fox Broadcasting prexy of sales Jon Nesvig. “Attracting share from our competitors during the summer is a big advantage for us.”

Fox’s biggest original scripted programming push prior to this year came in 1997, when Peter Roth, then head of the net’s entertainment division, debuted the “Braveheart”-esque “Roar” and new episodes of the sudser “Pacific Palisades,” along with several movies and reality shows.

(Pamela McClintock in New York contributed to this report.)

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