Fox tries new tack to avoid fall slump

Net to release reliable shows in January

Fox is throwing out the script this fall.

Top-rated net will try to avoid its annual autumn slump by premiering just three of its seven new scripted series before January. Instead, it plans to bulk up on reality during the fourth quarter, bowing three fresh shows and going completely unscripted on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

But it’s what’s not on the schedule that might help Fox snap out of its usual fall doldrums. Now that Fox shares the Major League Baseball playoffs with Turner, the net will preempt only 14 of its nights in October, compared to 26 in recent years — including just one preemption apiece on Monday, Tuesday and Friday.

As a result, Fox entertainment prexy Peter Liguori told reporters during a Friday afternoon press conference that he’s bullish on the fourth quarter.

“Our strategy for next season is really based on stability,” Liguori said. “In the coming season, 17 out of our 17 returning shows will air on the same night.”

Later, presenting the schedule to advertisers at New York’s City Center, he added that the net felt “better prepared to come out swinging.”

The net will wait until January to unfurl its most daring scheduling move: Launching “Terminator” franchise drama “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” Sundays at 9 p.m.

Liguori noted that “Sarah Connor” will air in the slot that Fox once dominated with “The X-Files.” Return of drama in that slot is a huge shift from the animated comedies that have run there in recent years.

To accommodate the show, Fox plans to move its two-hour ani block to 7-9 p.m., with “American Dad” and “Family Guy” at 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Sunday, respectively. (Net said it didn’t anticipate any content issues with “Family Guy,” despite its earlier slot.)

“When we were looking at our schedule overall, we didn’t have a lot of needs,” Liguori said. “But the decision to wait was actually based on circulation. While the other guys get out of the gate in the fall with maximum circulation, we come into our own in January.”

Midseason bow will also allow “Sarah Connor” to run its entire season without repeats — an increasingly common scheduling move pioneered by Fox with “24.”

“It’s always better to take your precious creative gems and try to run them straight through,” Liguori said.

By waiting until midseason to launch what will likely be its loudest and biggest gambit, Fox can focus its summer promotional efforts on two new fall dramas (the cop-themed “K-Ville” and “New Amsterdam”) and its Kelsey Grammer-Patricia Heaton laffer (“Back to You”).

Grammer and Heaton will be asked to open up Wednesday night for the net — never an easy task for a new show. But given their familiar faces and sitcom pedigree, Liguori said he almost thinks of “Back to You” as a returning series.

“On every cylinder it seemed to work,” he said. “The show is funny, that’s why it’s on the schedule and we have the confidence to lead off a night with it.”

When “American Idol” and “24” return in January, net will then turn its attention to launching four more scripted shows. Besides “Sarah Connor,” the list includes legal drama “Canterbury’s Law” and laffers “The Rules for Starting Over” and “The Return of Jezebel James.”

In addition to winter tentpoles “Idol” and “24,” Fox next season gets the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 and a slew of other big sports events.

“We’ll strategically take advantage of those platforms,” Liguori said.

Surprises on the Fox fall sked include “Nashville,” a previously unannounced reality sudser from Go Go Luckey Prods., the folks behind MTV’s “Laguna Beach.” Skein will follow young talent trying to make it in Music City.

Liguori said “Nashville” had only recently become a fall contender. The network screened a 15-minute presentation during their pilot screenings.

“I fell in love with the casting,” Liguori said. “Each of them have a great story and they’re going after something that’s meaningful.”

It’s also mildly surprising that Fox plans to air its new band competition from “American Idol” producers on Fridays, a night that’s become home to a collection of so-so rated skeins on all broadcast webs. Move does make sense, however, allowing Fox to minimize expectations for the show while potentially transforming what’s long been one of the net’s weakest nights.

“I’ll throw my hat into the ring with the producers of ‘American Idol’ any day of the week,” Liguori said.

Net is also doubling up on chef Gordon Ramsay. The “Hell’s Kitchen” host will return in the fall with a new skein, the previously announced “Kitchen Nightmares.”

As for returning shows, Liguori admitted that “24” had hit a creative slump this season, but promised a tweak in time for next January.

“The good news is we, the network, and (exec producers) Bob (Cochran) and Howard (Gordon) and Joel (Surnow), none of us were satisfied with this year,” he said. “We heard what the loyal audience said to us. We’re really fueled to be more daring with what they’re doing next year.”

Fox is finally giving “House” a permanent timeslot, letting the show remain Tuesdays at 9 p.m., rather than switiching it to 8 p.m. in the fall, as it has done in past years. Net also announced that “House” would score the post-Super Bowl timeslot.

And Liguori said he wasn’t concerned about the ratings dips recently experienced by “American Idol.”

“This is still a very fertile, very popular juggernaut of a show,” he said. “One of the great things about this show is that it reboots every year. Some years there are bigger personalities and bigger singers. But when you look at it overall, the show is doing extremely well.”

Meanwhile, Liguori kept his word — and kept the Fox upfront presentation under an hour (Daily Variety, May 1). The event lasted just 57 minutes — the shortest of the five networks, all of which pared down their upfront showcases this year.

That had media buyers cheering. Lee Doyle, CEO of Mediaedge:cia North America, said he applauded Fox for “getting in short and sweet.”

As for the net’s schedule, Doyle said, “In general, they’re taking some chances airing a wide range of different programs, with a few that are on the edge. It’s so hard to predict a breakout hit and it rarely comes from a proven formula.”

(Michael Learmonth contributed to this report.)

Fox Primetime Schedule Primetime schedule for fall 2007-2008
7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30 10:00 10:30
Mon.   Prison Break
Tue.   New Amersterdam House  
Wed.   Back to You ‘Til Death Bones  
Thur.   Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Kitchen Nightmares  
Fri.   The Search for the Next Great American Band (working title) Nashville (working title)  
Sat.   Cops Cops America’s Most Wanted: American Fights Back
Sun. The OT
The Simpsons King of the Hill Family Guy American Dad
Off the Chart:
11:00 pm – midight: MadTV; Midnight – 12:30 am: Talk Show with Spike Ferestein
* indicates time period change
Bold denotes new show

Fox Primetime SchedulePrimetime schedule for spring 2007-2008
7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30 10:00 10:30
Mon. K-Ville (Jan.) /
Prison Break (spring)
Tue.   American Idol House  
Wed. (January) Back to You ‘Til Death American Idol  
Wed. (spring) The Return of Jezebel James (working title) American Idol results show ‘Til Death
Thur.   Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Canterbury’s Law  
Fri.   Bones New Amersterdam  
Sat.   Cops Cops America’s Most Wanted: American Fights Back  
Sun. King of the Hill American Dad The Simpsons Family Guy The Sarah Connor Chronicles  
Off the Chart:
Saturday: 11:00 pm – midight: MadTV; Midnight – 12:30 am: Talk Show with Spike Ferestein
* indicates time period change
Bold denotes new show
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