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Move flummoxes net

Fox scrambles to fill Berman prexy slot

Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman’s impending departure leaves the net scrambling to find a replacement during the heart of pilot season.

Given that Berman hasn’t officially left the lot, it was too early Tuesday to tell how her position might be filled. But long-rumored candidates to take over the entertainment prexy position in the event of Berman’s departure have included 20th Century Fox TV prexy Dana Walden as well as FX topper Peter Liguori.

Other names in the mix include former WB CEO Jordan Levin, Fox TV Studios’ Angela Shapiro and Fox Entertainment exec VP Craig Erwich.

Given the proximity to the upfronts, a safe bet could be Walden — 20th Century Fox TV, after all, produces a lion’s share of the net’s projects, so she’d already be up to speed on the majority of the net’s development.

There’s also precedent: When Disney axed ABC Entertainment TV chairman Lloyd Braun and entertainment prexy Susan Lyne last year, just weeks before upfronts, the conglom turned to sibling Touchstone TV topper Steve McPherson.

As word of Berman’s expected move to Paramount made the rounds Tuesday, industry execs said they were disappointed to be losing Berman to the film biz. Berman is a rare figure among network TV toppers — universally respected by colleagues and rivals alike.

“She can pass on every single pilot you have, but you still want to go to lunch with her the next day,” said UTA partner Sue Naegle. “She’s passionate and she’s fearless.”

Whoever takes over the entertainment presidency faces the same challenges that have made Berman’s job — as well as former Fox TV Entertainment Group chair Sandy Grushow’s — so difficult in recent years: how to navigate the net’s fall schedule around the October baseball playoffs.

Baseball has long served as a momentum killer for the net, which once again limped through the first four months of the TV season. Fox finally recovered in January thanks to “American Idol,” the return of “24” and the growth of frosh drama “House.”

Net also has had a frustrating time growing audiences for its critically acclaimed laffers, including the Emmy winner “Arrested Development.” Before that, shows like “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” and “Undeclared” earned raves but failed to make a dent in the Nielsens. Its Sunday night sked, home to perennial fave “The Simpsons,” is also showing signs of weakness, while the net needs to shore up Fridays and find a companion for “The OC.”

Still, Berman leaves the network as it continues to rebound in one of the industry’s biggest-ever midseason turnarounds. Having started off the 2004-05 season in last place, Fox is set to win the year among adults 18-49 for the first time ever (having finished in second place the previous four years).

Under Berman and Erwich, Fox has developed several potentially buzzworthy pilots for next fall, including the actioner “Prison Break” and “24”-like relationship drama “Reunion” as well as the Alicia Silverstone laffer “Queen B,” the gay-themed “Don’t Ask” and Darren Star entry “Kitchen Confidential.” Net also has been working hard to avoid the baseball curse by continuing to roll out more scripted series year round, despite last summer’s disappointing perf.

Nevertheless, with her contract up, Berman likely decided it was time to try her hand at something else and leave on top.

Berman will be a tough act to follow: While her predecessors generally lasted in the gig just two years or less, Berman has spent nearly five years as entertainment president at Fox.

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