Fox division offers new model for laffs

Alternative unit on prowl for offbeat fare

The cameras will be rolling in Tyler, Texas, this summer as Lauren Jones, the WWE diva-turned-local news anchor, meets Stormy the Weather Dog.

Upstart Tyler TV station KYTX is so low-rated that it jumped at the chance to bring aboard Jones — a pageant queen and ex-model who has no TV news experience whatsoever — to read the headlines.

KYTX owner Phil Hurley, a pure Texas showman, came up with the idea of putting a canine in front of the camera, and is now trying to goose the ratings by touting the sexed-up Jones, all while Hurley’s employees cry foul.

Sound like the premise for a crazy sitcom? It is — but Jones is real, as are Hurley and KYTX. And yes, puppy Stormy really does offer up the seven-day forecast.

But they’re also the stars of Fox’s upcoming comedy/reality hybrid “Anchorwoman.” Fox recently gave a five-episode order to the show, which follows Jones as she takes a stab at TV news in Tyler.

“Anchorwoman” comes from 20th Century Fox TV’s alternative unit, Fox21, as well as producers the G Group. Created and exec produced by Brian Gadinsky, the show mixes a traditional sitcom setting (think “Murphy Brown”) with semi-scripted reality banter (think “The Simple Life”).

In an age where viewers are slurping up reality TV while thumbing their nose at comedy, Fox21 topper Jane Francis believes “Anchorwoman” could offer up a new model for producing half-hour laffers.

“Comedy is a little bit scary,” Francis says. “We have to try something different. This is a good example of another way to literally address the sitcom crisis. They’re great characters, they’re real characters. You can’t write some of this. Will it work? Who knows? But I think it’s worth a shot.”

The “Anchorwoman” producers will spend six weeks in Tyler chronicling Jones’ attempt to break into news.

Francis says the show has mapped out basic storylines and has a wish list of scenes to pick up on camera. But beyond that, she wants the action to be as true to life as possible.

“We agreed internally that we don’t want to rig anything, or overproduce it,” Francis says.

The launch of “Anchorwoman” comes as Fox21 hits its third anniversary and looks to expand its development slate among broadcast and cable nets. The shingle is a producer on CW’s “Beauty and the Geek” and was also behind the short-lived, semi-improv Fox laffer “Free Ride.”

Fox21 has several projects in development at a wide range of nets, including FX, USA, Showtime and Sci-Fi (where its Kiefer Sutherland-produced “Phenomenon” is in the works).

“They’ve done exactly what we set that company up to do,” says 20th Century Fox TV prexy Dana Walden. “They set out to develop really interesting, unconventional ideas. Virtually every piece of development goes through a different process than at the main studio.”

Walden and Francis say Fox21 nonetheless has an easier time getting reality off the ground at the nets; so far, broadcasters are less willing to try scripted shows that look different and cost less.

“The work Fox21 is doing on the development side at cable is fantastic,” Walden says. “But in terms of the broadcast networks, it’s still very challenging. It’s going to take one network that’s bold enough to get out in front of a lower-cost drama, from a marketing perspective, to break that trend.”

Still, Walden and 20th Century Fox TV are bullish on the idea of alternative development — as is Warner Bros. TV, which recently launched the Fox21-like Warner Horizon title.

Francis also notes that more emerging cable nets are attempting original programming, opening the door wider for low-cost and alternative scripted and unscripted development. Viewers are also adjusting to programming of various shapes, forms and costs via the Internet, on sites like YouTube. All of those changes have taken place since Fox21 launched.

“I do think it’s a good time … lower budget isn’t as scary as it used to be,” Francis says. “I think the big lesson I’ve learned is that it takes time, you can’t hurry this. But I think we’re really in a good place.”

As Fox21 develops more alternative comedy projects, it has made deals with scribes including Waco O’Guin and Roger Black (“Stankervision”), who are prepping “Temps,” and Phil Price (“The Business”), who’s working on “Prodigies.” Francis says getting into business with such off-beat show creators reflects the shingle’s brand.

In the meantime, she is hot on “Anchorwoman,” which could wind up doing wonders this summer for Fox21, the comedy genre, a struggling Texas TV station and models-turned-anchors everywhere.

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