Fox targets key adult viewers

Bold changes fuel demo bid

Fox will try to keep its midseason momentum going — and challenge NBC for the demo crown — with an ambitious fall sked boasting four new comedies and a trio of frosh dramas.

Net, which will end the 2002-03 season next week within shouting distance of the Peacock among viewers 18-49, has made clear its intent to offer original programming on a year-round basis. As a result, the Fox sked to be unveiled to advertisers today will feature shows that roll out as early as July and as late as January.

Change is evident on many nights of the week, particularly on Thursdays and Fridays, where Fox will start from scratch with all-new lineups.

Net will also further cement its status as a comedy leader with a dozen half-hour laffers, up from 10 last fall and more than any other net.

And Fox will once again use its reality hits to launch scripted fare.

Second installment of “Joe Millionaire” will air at 8 p.m. Monday — opposite NBC’s “Fear Factor” — rather than 9 p.m. so that the net can use “Joe” as a lead-in to the new Jerry Bruckheimer-produced hour “Skin.”

What’s more, “American Idol” spinoff “American Juniors,” which doesn’t premiere until next month, has already been ordered for a second season. It’ll stay put on Tuesday nights in order to provide an established lead-in for the third season of “24.”

Ethnic diversity is also a highlight of the new Fox sked. Minority characters dominate six of the net’s 15 scripted series, with those half-dozen series spread out over three nights rather than bunched together on a single evening as some nets (including Fox) have done in the past.

“Balance is the operative word in so many ways,” one Fox insider said of the new sked. “We have traditional comedies and comedies that push the form. We have scripted shows and unscripted shows. The goal is to make it all seamless and establish a flow throughout the week.”

Fox’s new dramas include the femme actioner “Tru Calling,” teen sudser “The O.C.” and “Skin,” which revolves around the porn biz.

Laffers set for fall include the hybrid comedy/gabfest “The Ortegas,” Norm Macdonald’s “Newhart”-like “A Minute with Stan Hooper,” family comedy “Luis” and quirky single-camera half-hour “Arrested Development.”

Family drama “Still Life” will likely premiere in January, possibly on Thursdays, while previously greenlit drama “Wonder Falls” will inherit “Joe Millionaire’s” Monday slot after the show wraps in January. Molly Shannon laffer “Cracking Up” is also due for a midseason bow, while variety skein “Banzai” will launch in the summer and could return midseason.

Fox is also working on a plan to produce up to 30 episodes per season of “The O.C.” should the skein click with auds. Net had such an arrangement in place with “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place.”

Despite some key changes, Fox execs believe the 2003-04 sked reps the net’s most stable in years, thanks to the fact that established shows will air on every night of the week. Even Thursday night, which features new hours “True Calling” and “The O.C.,” will have something of an established series on during the fall since “The O.C.” is set to bow in July or early Auguest.

Move to broadcast original scripted programming on Thursday nights signals Fox belief that it finally has the product to compete on a night dominated by NBC and CBS. Net had hope to offer original scripted shows on Thursday last season, but ultimately went for a mix of news and reality.

“We know we’re going to have ratings issues on Thursday night, but we think we have the goods to perform with the 12-34 audience that will be available,” a Fox insider said. “We have to have patience and let these shows grow.”

Friday nights should also prove to have some upside for Fox. After years of trying out new hourlong skeins on the night — only to see the show fail — net has gone for a diverse lineup featuring an established comedy at 8 (midseason hit “Wanda at Large”), a new laffer (“Luis”), and a veteran drama (“Boston Public.”)

One byproduct of Fox’s move: Producer Bruce Helford will be competing with himself, since he produces both “Wanda” and ABC’s 8 p.m. Friday laffer, “George Lopez.”

Fox’s Sunday sked remains relatively stable. Net seems to have acknowledged the death of “Futurama,” replacing the 7 p.m. laffer with a second season of “Oliver Beene,” which has been given a 13-seg order for the season.

“King of the Hill,” “The Simpsons” and “Malcolm in the Middle” remain anchored at 7:30, 8 and 9 p.m., with “The Ortegas” and “Arrested Development” at 8:30 and 9:30 p.m.

Wednesdays are also pretty stable, with last fall’s lineup remaining intact save for new 8:30 p.m. laffer “A Minute with Stan Hooper.” Many industry insiders had wondered whether Fox would give the Barry Kemp-penned skein a fall berth given its “Newhart”-like feel made it seem more like a CBS laffer rather than a Fox comedy.

But “Stan” was a huge hit with test auds, scoring higher than any Fox comedy this year or in recent years. And as one insider put it, “Funny is funny.”

In addition to “Futurama,” series not returning include “Fastlane,” “John Doe,” “The Pitts,” “Girls Club,” “Firefly” and the never-aired “The Grubbs.”