‘Idol’ return should put Fox in gear

Net clocks heat as hit skeins return to tube

This week’s return of “American Idol” and “24” should put Fox back in the race for first place among young adults, but network entertainment topper Peter Liguori isn’t betting on a repeat ratings crown.

Fox ended last season in first place with adults 18-49 for the first time in its history, thanks in part to the Super Bowl and the continued power of “Idol.” But ABC airs the NFL title tilt this year — not to mention the Academy Awards — and has already benefited from a top-rated NCAA Championship game in the Rose Bowl as well as the continued strength of shows like “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.”

In other words, as Liguori told reporters Tuesday at Fox’s portion of the Television Critics Assn. press tour, it’s going to be another down-to-the-wire ratings battle.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “The difference between No. 1 and No. 3 is going to be even tighter than it was last year. I’m not writing any concession speeches yet.”

Fox’s fate depends in large part on the return of “Idol,” which made its fifth season debut Sunday night. Unlike last year, when most pundits were predicting a ratings dip, most execs inside and out of Fox were expecting a strong homecoming.

“If I follow up what happened last year with Gail (Berman, former Fox Entertainment topper, who) predicted it would go down about 10%; it went up 4%,” he said. “I should probably say it may go down 20% in the hopes that it goes up 8.

“It’s a phenomenon,” he said. “It’s almost as if there’s the NFL season, there’s Major League Baseball season, then it’s ‘American Idol’ season. So we have every hope and aspiration that the show will continue its great run.”

With “Idol” in Fox’s pocket, Liguori said the net isn’t concerned about going up against the Winter Olympics next month.

“We’re basically running our schedule,” he said. “We think the ‘Idol’ audience is unbelievably loyal. This is their favorite show, and we anticipate that our ratings will be solid.”

Looking to next season, Fox will enter fall without several of its current comedy players. As had long been expected, the net officially announced “Malcolm in the Middle” and “That ’70s Show” will retire in May.

“Malcolm,” in its seventh season, will end May 14 as it airs its 150th episode. “That ’70s Show,” in its eighth year, will wrap up with an hourlong episode (its 200th seg) May 18. Fox is in talks to bring back original cast members Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher for the finale.

Then there’s critical fave “Arrested Development,” which Liguori still hesitated to completely shoot down — although he admitted it was “highly unlikely” the show would return to Fox.

“It is regrettable that we could not find the audience that the show deserved,” he said.

ABC and Showtime have both expressed interest in “Arrested.” Liguori noted that if the cabler “were able to migrate the absolute numbers that ‘Arrested’ gets on Fox to Showtime, that would be by far and away its No. 1 show.”

Liguori also didn’t close the door on “The Bernie Mac Show,” which remains on the bubble, or “King of the Hill,” although he said a final decision on the animated show’s fate would have to be made soon.

Production has long been halted on “King,” but Liguori said the show could still be recharged and brought back next year in midseason.

Commenting on what’s become the hot issue at this winter’s Television Critics Assn. gathering — the emergence of digital and online platforms like iPod — Liguori said the network is still mulling the landscape before diving in further.

“It’s in the nascent stages of what we can do with this, and it’s been our strategy not to try to go out and be first with announcements, but to go out with our best strategy,” he said. “We’re taking a more measured approach to what works and what may not work.”

Meanwhile, the net announced its midseason sked, hoping to take advantage of “Idol,” as it has in the past, to launch several series.

Fox will preview sitcom “Free Ride” on March 1 after the “Idol” results show before moving “Ride” to Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on March 12 (giving “American Dad” a breather).

Net will also use the post-“Idol” results show slot to showcase another new comedy, “The Loop,” on March 15, before moving “Loop” to Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. starting the following night (March 16). Fox still hasn’t determined what will permanently reside in the Wednesday 9:30 slot, although Liguori said several reality-show pilots in the works could fit.

As part of the scheduling shuffle, “Malcolm in the Middle” moves back to Sundays, airing in the 7 p.m. spot starting Jan. 29 (net will fill its Friday 8:30 p.m. home with additional episodes of “Bernie Mac”), while “Prison Break” officially returns on Mondays at 8 p.m. starting March 20 — and “Bones” settles into Wednesdays at 8 beginning March 8.

Also during Fox’s Tuesday presentation, the audience of critics groaned loudly when told that Paula Abdul had suspiciously come down with an eye infection — and wouldn’t be able to join the other “American Idol” judges during the show’s press tour session.

Questions about Abdul dominated Fox’s press tour session in July, following an ABC “Primetime Live” report that suggested she had developed an intimate relationship with Corey Clark while he was a contestant on the show.

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