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Fox sesh dogged by ‘Idol’

Journos flog past flap as fall season nears

“American Idol” helped propel Fox to No. 1 last season, but it was the seedy allegations behind the show that dominated new Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Liguori’s first time on plate at the TV Critics Assn. press tour.

Reporters — who earlier in the week grilled ABC over voting disputes behind another reality hit, “Dancing With the Stars — turned their attention Thursday to “American Idol” judge Paula Abdul’s alleged affair with former contestant Corey Clark.

Outsiders might have confused the Fox session for a White House press conference, as talk of independent counsels, corroborating witnesses, potential judge malfeasances and the need to maintain credibility with voters filled the Beverly Hilton’s Intl. Ballroom.

One reporter even compared the Abdul controversy to CBS News’ recent faked memo flap and asked whether a full display of the net’s “American Idol” investigation would be similarly published.

“We’re talking about a piece of entertainment here,” said Liguori, who admitted later he was surprised by the amount of focus placed on the Abdul affair. (For the record, the exec said the study would be fully released.)

Nonetheless, Liguori said he took the allegations against “Idol” and Abdul — reported last spring on a special edition of ABC’s “Primetime Live” — very seriously.

As a result, Fox, Fremantle and 19 TV hired the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as independent counsel to investigate. The firm has already interviewed both Abdul — who denied several allegations — and Clark, and will turn over its findings later in the year.

“We want the inquiry to be thorough rather than expeditious,” he said. “The credibility of this competition to us can never be underestimated. This show is important to us. It’s the No. 1 hour, the No. 1 half-hour on TV. I don’t think it’s something that we should take lightly.”

Wishing well

Liguori also was asked to explain why Fox passed on two of the fall’s more buzzed-about pilots, UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris” and NBC’s “My Name Is Earl,” before he joined the net.

The exec said that while he believed it was healthy to re-examine and criticize one’s own decisions, he wasn’t “rethinking them to the point of an anxiety attack.”

Former entertainment topper Gail Berman and net exec VP Craig Erwich “had a very, very solid development season,” he said. “You eventually go to the table on what pilots you want to pick up and prioritize. I wish our competitors well, to a certain degree, on those shows.”

Liguori joined Fox this May just as the network was riding high and heading toward its first-ever season finish in the No. 1 slot among adults 18-49. To that end, the exec said he wasn’t planning to make “monster changes” to the operation.

But he also recognized that “the most scary position to be in is the No. 1 network,” he said. “It can breed a specific amount of safety. I think everyone back in our office is feeling like there’s a target on our back.”

Living dangerously

In order to stay No. 1, Liguori said the net needed to continue to be innovative and “dangerous.”

“It’s something I feel particularly comfortable with, given my experience at FX,” he said. “Fox and FX are very similar brands.”

The former FX chief exec said it’s not likely any of the cabler’s wares will show up on the broadcast net, or vice versa — although it always remains a possibility.

Liguori called his first months on the job a “big learning experience.”

“I’ve never dealt with this amount of volume, and I’ve never dealt with the daunting task of ‘let’s go get 24 episodes out of a series,’ ” he said. “I’ve learned a heck of a lot.”

As for the net’s scheduling strategy, Liguori said its early launches this year will allow new shows to get several airings (including seven for “Prison Break,” one of the net’s top priorities) before baseball playoff and World Series preempts most of October.

He also said the January launches of “American Idol” and “24” give the net an opportunity to freshen its lineup and premiere frosh midseason shows.

“With a show like (‘Prison Break’), we’re going to get the hook in deep,” he said.

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