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Fox syndie opts for slow pitch

Lab's rollout strategy helps produce solid performers

Twentieth TV makes no bones about it: Every project the studio puts into development for firstrun syndication has pretty much one purpose — filling the programming needs of the Fox-owned TV stations in 34 U.S. cities.

Fox Lab is the name of 20th’s programming arm, and the stations serve as a laboratory for the showcasing of many of these series. Twentieth has created a cottage industry out of trying to nurture a freshman series with a slow rollout, installing it on a selected number of Fox O&Os for a couple of months of testing before it goes national.

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Mitch Stern, chairman-CEO of the Fox-owned TV stations, says he works closely with Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of 20th TV, to come up with “a block of firstrun shows that could spin off a critical mass of barter,” which would funnel big advertising bucks into the company’s coffers.

“The beauty of this strategy is that it allows us to place the show in different time periods in different markets to see where it might play best,” Cook says. “The stations give us a steady flow of input and help us to tailor the promotion to make viewers aware of the show.”

The biggest slow-rollout dividend for 20th so far is “Texas Justice,” which showed enough promise in a limited-market run in 2000 that the distributor took it wide in 2001. Since then, “Justice” has continued to perform solidly, now ranking consistently as the fourth highest-rated court show in firstrun syndication.

Stern says Fox Lab skimps on the production costs for a show in slow rollout so that if the test proves a failure, 20th won’t lose much money. But 20th pumped more dollars into “Justice,” both for production and promotion, when the show went national.

Two other 20th five-a-weekers began last year with slow rollouts and got the nationwide go-ahead in 2003: “Good Day Live,” the one-hour talkshow that has performed modestly since January in 91% of the U.S., and “Extreme Dating,” which is struggling to reach an average 1 rating on 150 TV stations amid a glut of dating shows.

“I’m not satisfied with the ratings of ‘Good Day Live,'” Stern says. “But it gets solid women demos and it’s viewer-friendly. Our barter salespeople love it.”

Earlier this month, two more 20th shows began their slow-rollout odyssey: “Classmates” (on 25 Fox O&Os representing 44.3% of the U.S.) and “Ambush Makeover” (on 18 Fox O&Os, or 32.9%). The two shows are off to shaky starts, falling by double digits both from their lead-ins and from the year-ago time period.

But Cook is not discouraged, saying it’s far too early to draw any firm conclusions about the shows’ fate. For example, feedback from viewers and visitors to the Web site already has told the producers of “Classmates,” a “Whatever happened to…?” relationship show, that the public wants to see former lovers reunited only if at least 10 years have elapsed since they went to school together.

While the slow rollout is 20th’s preferred way of distributing rookie syndie fare, the company will go for broke nationally with a new early-fringe hour hosted by Ryan Seacrest (“American Idol”), to premiere in January. Cook calls the show a combination of “Entertainment Tonight,” Rosie O’Donnell’s talkshow and MTV’s “Total Request Live.” The Seacrest show, still untitled, has landed deals with TV stations reaching 65% of the U.S., including all of the Fox O&Os.

Although it’s not automatic, most of the off-network sitcoms distributed by 20th find themselves gravitating toward many of the Fox-owned stations; examples include “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill” and “The Bernie Mac Show.”