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Fox poised to view for ratings lead

'Idol,' 'House,' 'Prison,' '24' to send net back into high gear

Hot dramas like “House,” “24” and “Prison Break” have better insulated Fox from any possible “American Idol” cool down — although this hardly looks like the year the music phenom skips a beat.

Last week’s huge premiere for the fifth season of “Idol” (35 million viewers on opening night) means Fox will be a player every week the rest of the way after being an afterthought for much of fall.

At the halfway point of the season, Fox was still in fourth place in Nielsen’s non-sports 18-49 averages (2.8 rating), up 12% year-to-year. (In overall averages, its third-place 3.1 rating is down 9%, because last season’s postseason baseball rated much higher.)

Fox may have a tough time defending its title as the overall 18-49 champ, but it will certainly make things interesting by winning many weeks the rest of the way.

And while other nets are plugging in repeats in March and April, Fox will plow ahead with all originals on Monday (“Prison Break” and “24”) as well as at least 1½ hours of “American Idol” every week.

Here’s a quick look at Fox:

WHAT WORKED: Give Fox credit for trying two more high-concept serialized skeins: While “Reunion” didn’t make it, “Prison Break” was a ratings winner, and should pick up steam when it returns in March, paired with “24,” which opened season five to record numbers this month. It’s these shows that get watercooler buzz.

In addition to “Prison,” the best news for the net has been the ratings rise of “House,” which will only add more viewers by remaining behind “Idol” on Tuesday. Fox now has a good combo of procedurals and character-driven drama, as rookie forensics hour “Bones” also has performed pretty well.

Sunday’s comedy block is an effective No. 2 to ABC on the night, with “The Simpsons” the season’s No. 3 comedy in 18-49, and “Family Guy” tough vs. “Desperate Housewives.”

“The War at Home” at times has showed some spunk, but looks shaky, retaining about 75% of its “Simpsons” lead-in at 8:30. Net will have to keep an eye on “War” the rest of the way to see if it warrants a return next fall.

Also contributing as solid utility players are the unscripted combo of “Nanny 911” and “Trading Spouses.”

WHAT DIDN’T WORK: After a short run last spring when it fared OK, Pamela Anderson laffer “Stacked” has been a bust and won’t be around much longer. And after more low ratings, “Arrested Development” will end its season — and likely its Fox run — in February.

“The OC” has been something of a disappointment, and the net would like to see it perform a little better in its new 9 o’clock Thursday slot. Still, its young skew is a plus.

And then there’s Friday, where the net is once again foundering in fourth.

WHAT’S AHEAD: The unscripted “Skating With Celebrities” is a lark, and should ice the competish Mondays at 8, filling the hour until “Prison Break” returns.

Otherwise, don’t expect any other new hours on the Fox sked, as the return of “24” and “American Idol” have helped eat up real estate.

Net must be concerned about its comedy profile outside of Sunday, especially now that “Malcolm in the Middle” and “That ’70s Show” are set to end, and “Bernie Mac” won’t be around much longer. Two newbies, “Free Ride” and “The Loop,” will get their chance to make some noise in March.

Another key is “Bones,” which gets a chance to grow its aud by playing next to “Idol” on Wednesday.

BOTTOM LINE: With “24” and “American Idol” humming, Fox is a different network — and one that could be in the mix for the season lead in May.

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