'American,' '24' position net for great finish

This is the time of the year when Fox execs can’t wait to check the ratings hotline for the previous night’s numbers.

After a fall that had the net twiddling its thumbs with numerous fourth-place finishes while its rivals were putting up some big Nielsens, Fox is again back in the spotlight.

Postseason football — both college and pro — padded the net’s early-January numbers, and the robust returns last week of vital vets “American Idol” and “24” have positioned it for another of its patented fantastic finishes.

Sure, the net would have liked its freshman fall class to fare better, but flops like “Justice,” “Happy Hour” and “Vanished” are but a faded memory now. And Fox figures to be locked into a down-to-the-wire finish with CBS for the demo crown.

Through 17 weeks, according to Nielsen, Fox remained in fourth place with a 3.2 rating in adults 18-49, trailing not only leader CBS (3.7) but also ABC and NBC (both at 3.6).

But that’s nothing 40-something nights of “American Idol” can’t change.

Here’s a look at the net:

What sizzled: Medical mystery “House” is up about 25% vs. its pre-“Idol” 18-49 average of last season and ranks seventh among all primetime skeins, giving Fox at least one big bullet it can count on all season.

Elsewhere, “Prison Break” has held up well in its second season, and figures to get a boost now that it’s again partnered with “24.”

And on the comedy side, “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” rank second and third in 18-49, respectively, among the season’s top half-hours, while “American Dad” has proven to be a pretty good fit in the slot between them.

What fizzled: A few years after looking like the next big thing for Fox, sudser “The OC” has really struggled this season (1.8 average rating) and will call it quits next month.

Net also has failed to excite viewers with its pair of dreary Thursday sitcoms, “‘Til Death” and “Happy Hour.” It didn’t help that the net put them in a slot opposite comedies on both ABC and NBC, but the Fox shows didn’t figure to make it anywhere on the sked.

And then there were a trio of uninspired hours (“Justice,” “Standoff,” “Vanished”) that predictably tanked. None of these had the usual “edge” of a Fox drama anyway, so the net is better off moving on — although it’s giving “Standoff” a second chance on a new night.

Overall, the biggest disappointment has been the net’s performance on Thursday — where advertisers pay a premium to reach young adults. Each of the other nets is doing about as well as can be expected, but Fox has yet to carve out its identity on the night, and its 1.8 rating on Thursday is about one-third of leaders CBS and ABC, and barely ahead of CW.

What’s ahead: Fox is aggressively revamping its lineup for the homestretch, taking some chances now that “Idol” is there to compensate for some low-rated perfs.

Following “Prison Break’s” finale in February, action drama “Drive” takes over in Monday’s opening hour. Skein, about a cross-country road race, is slotted well here opposite female fare on the other nets and looks to be the net’s best shot at a scripted entry from this season to carry over to next fall.

And look for returning unscripted skein “Hell’s Kitchen” to follow “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” to fill out the net’s Thursday sked. This is good skedding too, and the net should look to schedule reality year-round on this night, when the other four broadcasters offer up compelling scripted skeins.

David E. Kelley’s “The Wedding Bells” is the net’s latest shot at a Friday drama in the 9 o’clock hour, but hold off on throwing the rice: It bows in March, and is probably a safe bet to be off the net’s sked by May.

As for comedies, the return of “King of the Hill” in the 8:30 slot should provide a jolt to the Sunday comedy lineup, although new 9:30 live-action laffer “The Winner” doesn’t figure to live up to its name. “Malcolm in the Middle” was an exception, but the net hasn’t had much luck with live-action comedies on Sunday, and should aim to go all-animation next fall.

Biggest question marks: The Super Bowl will help CBS pad its demo lead in coming weeks, so Fox will need to get passable numbers out of its new shows as well as second-year Wednesday hour “Bones.” How this crime drama fares alongside “Idol” in coming months could determine its fate for next season.

Fox is stubbornly sticking with “‘Til Death,” and will give it the post-“American Idol” slot for a few weeks. At least it can say it gave it a shot.

One show that might be able to do a decent number is Friday transfer “Standoff,” which could be a good drama alternative in its hour. It’s a low risk sked shift that could yield a pleasant surprise.

Bottom line: A third straight demo title is in Fox’s grasp if auds continue to worship “Idol” like they did in its first week back.

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