Fox’s place in the sun

Net basks in mid-year rays with biggest original slate ever

Not too long ago, webs used the warm weather months to concentrate on the three R’s: repeats, repeats and still more repeats. But thanks to ever-increasing competition from cable — and a lack of big hits during the traditional fall season — nets are taking summer more seriously these days.

This year, each of the Big Six plans to preem at least one tentpole reality skein between June and September. ABC and the WB aim to air at least one original scripted series as well, while NBC will burn off the sitcom “Come to Papa.”

And then there’s Fox.

Since late April, the net has been airing promos touting its new summer programming strategy as nothing short of a “revolution.” Competitors cry “hype” but the fact is, no other broadcast net in recent memory has attempted such an ambitious slate of both scripted and unscripted summer fare:

  • In June alone, Fox will bow two new comedies and dramas, a reality skein from Mark Burnett and the second season of unscripted smash “The Simple Life.”

  • A few more reality shows, and perhaps one or two more scripted skeins, will likely roll out in July or August.

  • Fox is promoting its new summer sked with the sort of campaign usually reserved for fall launches. Trailers for shows such as “Method & Red” will run in movie theaters; a summer preview DVD will be handed out at Best Buy; and Burger King will tout “The Simple Life 2” in over 8,000 restaurants.

“The old model of basically turning out the lights in the summer is dead and gone,” says Mindshare North America director Peter Tortorici.

Fox has an added incentive to take the lead in moving toward a year-round schedule. Its broadcasts of the Major League Baseball playoffs in October have made it all but impossible for Fox to build up any sort of momentum with a traditional fall launch.

“After several years of banging our heads against the wall, we’re taking seriously the idea that this network has to get going on its new schedule as soon as this season ends,” says Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman.

Fox is focusing most of its ammo on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, where virtually all of its sked will be first-run. While no one expects all of the shows to work, if one or two skeins break through, the net feels it will have a good head start on the fall crush.

What’s more, Fox execs learned a valuable lesson last year when they launched “The O.C.” during the summer. The series didn’t have a boffo bow, but by airing the same episode of the show two or three times a week, viewers eventually caught on — and the sudser turned into one of the season’s biggest scripted success stories.

No surprise then that this year, Fox will air all of its new shows twice a week — and execs are promising to be patient, as well.

“It would be an enormous mistake to focus on the initial ratings for these summer shows,” Beckman says. “For us, it’s about (accumulating) an audience over the first couple of weeks. We have to be thinking more long-term than we ever have before.”

Other webs wonder if there’s enough summer viewers for so many scripted shows.

NBC, for example, believes viewers want breezy reality fare come June — programs viewers can move in and out of over the course of the summer. CBS will be content to repeat its strong lineup of comedies and franchise dramas, mixed with reality skeins, including tentpole “Big Brother.”

Even Fox admits there’s a place for repeats, since the net needs to amortize the cost of high-priced laffers such as “The Simpsons.” Still, execs companywide believe network TV must move toward a 52-week sked in order to survive.

Allowing her new series to avoid the fall crunch is an “advantage at every level,” says Dana Walden, prexy of Fox sibling 20th Century Fox TV. “Our shows are being given a terrific opportunity to get out ahead of the pack and establish an audience before the other shows premiere.”

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