Fox sked idle ’til ‘Idol’

Net hopes show works magic

After another awful autumn, execs at Fox are once again counting the days until the return of “American Idol.”

TV’s most-watched show has consistently proved its ability to work wonders for the network. It scores socko numbers whenever it airs and raises the ratings of everything Fox airs around it.

As it does right now, Fox found itself in fourth place a year ago at this time, nearly a full Nielsen point behind demo leaders ABC and CBS. But just a few weeks after “Idol” (and winter hit “24”) premiered, the net had jumped to third place; by the end of the February sweeps, it was virtually tied for second with CBS.

And when all was said and done in May? Fox had once again won the season in adults 18-49.

This season, however, Simon Cowell & Co. have their work cut out for them.

For one thing, there’s a chance ABC could decide to sked its hotter-than-ever “Dancing With the Stars” against “Idol.” That’s a long shot, but it’s worth noting the U.K. version of “Dancing” is beating “The X Factor,” Blighty’s Cowell-fronted successor to “Idol.”

What’s more, even for a net accustomed to difficult autumns, the last two months have been tough for Fox.

Baseball’s postseason was a dud from start to finish. In addition to the usual interruption to Fox’s fall rollout plans, the Divisional Playoffs, the League Championship Series and the World Series all produced record-low ratings.

With baseball providing no lift — and actually dragging down the net’s year-to-year comparisons — Fox needed a solid performance out of its crop of five frosh comedies and dramas. That didn’t happen.

“To be perfectly honest, these shows didn’t stick,” Fox Entertainment president Peter Liguori admitted last week in an interview.

Indeed, Liguori has already canceled three of his newbies: Jerry Bruckheimer’s well-reviewed “Justice,” serialized thriller “Vanished” and comedy “Happy Hour.” A gameshow launched earlier this month, “The Rich List,” was pulled after one airing.

Two other frosh laffers, “‘Til Death” and light drama “Standoff” — have performed modestly. They’ll be back in January, however, with Liguori ordering more episodes of both.

Then there’s the O.J. situation. While next week’s two-part interview with O.J. Simpson likely will draw at least a few rubberneckers, the flurry of bad press surrounding the event is the last thing the net needs right now.

Fox had hoped to avoid a fall fumble by expanding on its winning strategy from the fourth quarter of 2005.

Premiering most of its shows prior to the start of the baseball playoffs allowed the net to establish two solid players last year — “Prison Break” and “Bones” — before the first pitch was thrown. Net still came out of the fall in fourth, but it had momentum.

This season, Fox again premiered most of its lineup before baseball. This time, no dice — but Liguori isn’t blaming the sked strategy.

“I feel very comfortable with the rollout plan,” he said. “We just needed the good fortune of better shows.”

Or, perhaps, more Fox-like shows. Rivals seems surprised at some of the skeins Fox greenlit this season, arguing that down-the-middle fare such as “Justice” and “‘Til Death” seemed more suited to CBS than Fox.

“We probably played it a little safe,” Liguori conceded. “But it’s all about portfolio management. We did make some bolder, more audacious shows, but those pilots weren’t executed as well, and in the scheduling room you have to go with your gut. The safer shows just merited a spot on the schedule.”

What’s more, argues Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman, simply putting on critically praised shows is no guarantee of success.

“You can look at the ‘bold’ and ‘audacious’ shows on other networks, and many of them didn’t work either,” Beckman said.

Despite the low ratings for its frosh, Fox has shown an almost Job-like patience in handling its problems this fall.

In the past, net might have reacted to its woes by loading up its sked with whatever reality guru Mike Darnell had waiting in the wings. It also would be easy to air repeats of procedural hits “House” and “Bones” four times a week, in much the way NBC and CBS use their respective “Law & Order” and “CSI” franchises to patch sked holes.

But, save for the O.J. special, Fox so far seems to be avoiding pressing any panic buttons.

Through the first two months of the season, net is averaging a 3.0 rating/8 share in adults 18-49. That’s down about 6% from the same frame last season and 1.2 ratings points behind demo leader ABC.

Liguori isn’t making any predictions about whether Fox will be able to erase the deficit by May. He does think Fox has some advantages this season, however.

For one thing, NBC’s fall ratings have been inflated by “Sunday Night Football,” as well as a gimmick in which the net simply doesn’t count a low-rated half-hour on Sunday. That means the second half of the season likely will be tougher for the Peacock.

ABC, while losing “Monday Night Football,” benefited by having “Dancing With the Stars,” its biggest unscripted asset, on for most of the fall. Also, Alphabet avoided cratering on Saturday with a savvy play: college football.

“Our competitors reached their maximum circulation in the fourth quarter,” Liguori said.

In addition to “Idol” and “24,” Fox will kick off 2007 with some new weapons, courtesy of the same sports division that gives it baseball. Net begins its contract with the college football Bowl Championship Series, while the Daytona 500 comes to Fox on Feb. 18.

Liguori also is betting heavily on two recently ordered midseason hours: the edgy, race-themed “Drive” and a wedding-planner dramedy from David E. Kelley. “The Winner,” a new comedy from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, seems destined to get a tryout behind the “Idol” results show.

It also seems inevitable that Darnell — like his peers at the other nets — will be called on to come up with some new attention-getting gameshow or reality concept.

“It makes a lot more sense to put shows we believe in on when our circulation is at its highest,” Liguori said.

And while “Standoff” and “‘Til Death” might seem weak now, Beckman and Liguori note “House” didn’t take off until it was slotted behind “Idol.” Meanwhile, the 2007 midseason skeds at the other nets will be filled with bubble shows, from NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” and “30 Rock” to ABC’s “Men in Trees.”

“Given the way our fourth quarter is structured, we have to be patient,” Beckman said. “Before we walk away, we have to give our shows a chance.”

The same applies to “The OC.” Sudser has been thrown to the lions this fall, slotted opposite Thursday titans “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI.”

“Once ‘Grey’s’ and ‘CSI’ are in repeats, hopefully ‘The OC’ will get some footing,” said Liguori.

Fox also is hoping fall 2006 will rep a final chapter of sorts in its baseball woes. Net’s new contract with Major League Baseball promises to sharply reduce the number of nights Fox will have to preempt its entertainment programming for sports.

Under the old package, as many as 26 nights were devoted to baseball. Next year, that number could be as few as 14, with some nights — like Mondays — devoid of interruptions.

“It allows us to premiere a little later next year and not have as many preemptions as we had in the past,” Beckman said.

Liguori isn’t making any excuses for this fall, however.

“We want to have better fourth quarters,” he said. “Our cycle is different than other networks. It’s challenging. But we have to do better and we’re striving to do better.”

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