Musical sensation, baseball keep net in contention

HOLLYWOOD — We may be halfway through the 2003-04 season, but in many ways things are only just beginning for Fox.

Net execs breathed a sigh of relief a couple of weeks ago when “American Idol” kicked off its third season with huge numbers, suggesting the music talent show phenomenon is as hot as ever — and again capable of carrying Fox on its back to Nielsen glory.

Almost overnight, a net that finished fourth in the November sweep and still does not have much of a programming direction on Monday, Thursday or Friday is in a position to challenge NBC for the season crown in 18-49.

Fox is a struggling net without “American Idol,” but it’s also probably unfair to judge its seasonal performance until its engine is motoring.

And this season, thanks to strong baseball-playoff ratings, the net is in a much more competitive position than it was a year ago. According to Nielsen, at midseason the net is second in adults 18-49 (3.9/11), trying to hold off CBS (3.8/10) while closing in on NBC (4.2/11).

It’s also the leader in persons 12-34 (3.6/12).

In “Idol,” Fox has a weapon similar to ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” of a few years back, but it should heed the Alphabet’s misdeeds. Short-term ratings bursts, such as the six-week reality farce “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” are nice and all, but Fox needs “Idol” to boost ratings and buzz for some of its promising newbies.

That’s why it was a smart programming move to put rookie sudser “The OC” in the post-“Idol” slot on Wednesday, where it’s taking advantage of the music show’s huge 12-34 core audience and now winning or challenging for the timeslot lead in the 9 o’clock hour.

Here’s a look at the net:

WHAT’S WORKING: Despite problems on Monday, Thursday and Friday, Fox is the 18-49 season leader on Tuesday and Wednesday (thanks to “Idol”), Saturday (with vets “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted”) and Sunday (with unstoppable “The Simpsons”).

Fox also enjoyed success with fish-out-of-water reality series “The Simple Life,” which could return in some form next season.

WHAT’S TANKING: Strong numbers from postseason baseball and football disguise the net’s numbers overall, but Fox is down in non-sports 18-49 averages on six nights (only Wednesday is up).

“The Simpsons” is off 17% year-to-year, which isn’t terrible for a show in its 15th season, but third-year Tuesday drama “24” is down 22% and is no longer effectively taking advantage of its “Idol” lead-in.

Among first-year shows that are still around, “Tru Calling” has shown signs of life on Thursday (especially among 12-34) and comedy “Arrested Development” is faring OK on Sundays behind “Malcolm in the Middle.” The latter, a critical fave, is one show that deserves to air behind “Idol” at some point.

Verdict is still out on third-year laffer “Bernie Mac,” which looked strong airing after “Idol” last year but hasn’t been lighting it up behind “The Simpsons” on Sundays.

WHAT’S AHEAD: Net has some promising midseason fare, including comedy “Cracking Up” (Mondays) and drama “Wonderfalls” (Fridays) as well as the return of laffer “Oliver Beene” (Sundays). Look for all three of these shows to get an “American Idol” lead-in at some point.

And you just know that the net’s cracked reality division has got another trick or two up its sleeve, including a previously announced “is-he-gay-or-straight” dating doozy that seems destined for a Monday berth in the spring.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s a fun ride to watch the net go from the outhouse to the penthouse when “American Idol” joins the sked every January, but Fox needs to do a better job of planting seeds of stability elsewhere on its sked.

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