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Fox fixed on non-‘Idol’ hits

Top network tries to shed one-trick pony image

What a difference one show makes — especially when it’s “American Idol.”

Despite not having any new scripted hits this year, Fox will once again finish the season in first place, thanks to “Idol” and powerful mainstays like “House” and “The Simpsons.”

With its third consecutive adults 18-49 victory in reach, Fox execs ought to be celebrating up and down Pico Blvd. And while the party hats no doubt will be out this month, the net knows that “Idol” can’t cover its weak spots forever.

There are also whispers that Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Liguori could be in trouble after most of this season’s scripted skeins, including “Vanished” and “Justice,” failed to click with auds. So, this year’s development roster is key.

For several years now, Fox has operated with a split personality: The network that struggles through the fall without “American Idol” vs. the web that rockets to No. 1 in the winter and spring with “American Idol.”

And although it has made some recent strides in improving its numbers during the autumn months, it’s only when “American Idol” comes back that Fox jumps from worst to first.

“I do feel we can do better, and we will do better in the fourth quarter,” says Liguori.

He believes the net will finally see some normalcy this fall as Fox decreases the number of hours it devotes to the Major League Baseball playoffs in October.

Fox traditionally goes dark during the month, as the sport consumes its schedule — effectively keeping the net out of the game as viewers sample other nets’ shows and choose their allegiances. The tough timing also means Fox must either debut its shows early and suffer through a month of preemptions, or wait until a competitive November sweep to showcase its wares.

Not this year. Under a new pact sealed last year, Fox will still air the World Series, but it now shares rights to the league championship series with TBS. For Fox, that means going from 26 possible pre-emptions to as few as 14.

“Baseball will be less of an obstacle that it was,” Liguori says. “And we’ll also have more flexibility when we premiere. We’ll be moving away from a four-week hiatus.”

THE STRATEGY

Mondays have become what Liguori calls a “high-octane night” of programming. Most recently, “Drive” quickly sputtered out of gas on the night. But with “24” and “Prison Break” airing without repeats on Mondays, there’s room for more.

“We’d love to create a companion to our ’24’-‘Prison Break’ continuous runs of originals,” Liguori says.

On Tuesday, without “Idol” in the fall, there’s an opportunity to take advantage of “House’s” mega numbers.

“It’s an insanely broad show — the No. 1 teen show in all of TV (beyond ‘Idol’),” Liguori says. “I’d like to find something we can team with that.”

The same goes for finding a Wednesday show to pair with “Bones.” As for Thursday, the success of “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” likely assures Fox will stick with reality as counterprogramming, at least at 8 p.m., and possibly all night.

Then there’s Friday, traditionally a difficult night for Fox. “It’s open to reinvention,” Liguori says. “Every color and every number is open for us.”

Don’t expect much major change on Saturday and Sunday, both of which still hum along nicely for the net.

THE PLAYERS

“Everything is game” in drama, says Liguori, noting that Fox benefits from both a male-centric sports platform and the femme-centric “American Idol” launching pad.

Several of Fox’s pilots could appeal to both demos, such as “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” — based on the “Terminator” characters, with a female lead role.

Net also has the legal franchise “Canterbury’s Law,” starring Julianna Marguiles, and the soapy hospital comedy/drama “Nurses.”

On the comedy side, Fox is still looking to break through with slightly more mainstream fare, with the Kelsey Grammer-Patricia Heaton laffer “Back to You,” which has been given a series commitment. Net also has Kirstie Alley starring in “Minister of Divine.”

Quirkier fare on the docket includes the laffer “Me & Lee?” starring Lee Majors as himself.

“I do think we’ve taken a portfolio management approach, going after some audacious off-the-grid ideas, like ‘Me & Lee?’ and marrying those with some more conventional shorts, like ‘Back to You.’ ”

Net also hopes to add another animated comedy to its Sunday stable, and perhaps open up a new night of live-action sitcoms.

THE QUESTION MARKS

Don’t bet against ” ‘Til Death.” The Brad Garrett comedy didn’t wow auds in its fall bow, but it came to life behind “American Idol.” Fox is now expected to bring the sitcom back.

“The War at Home” is probably Fox’s only true bubble show, and its prospects look dim.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It’s been a tough year for scripted skeins, as “Happy Hour,” “Justice,” “Standoff,” “Drive” and “Vanished” quickly disappeared. That led critics and rival webheads to question Liguori’s oft-quoted strategy last year to “zig while the other guys zag.”

Viewers decided that “Happy Hour” and “Justice” weren’t right for Fox; the mission this year: Find shows that either fit the edgy Fox brand, or are so good that it doesn’t matter whether it tonally fits with the rest of the net’s programming.

“Peter’s on the hot seat,” says one studio exec. “Next year, he needs to catch a break and have a couple of things succeed.”

Luckily for Liguori, players like “Idol” and “House” are so strong that there’s still time, for now, to develop new hits.

“I do believe next year we’re going in with a stable schedule, which is a blessing,” Liguori says. “We also have the World Series, a robust BCS championship series, the NFC championship, the Super Bowl … things we can use to fortify our promotional base.”

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