Fox + ‘Idol’ = odd winning formula

Network is No. 1 despite not having a new hit

THE STRANGE BEAUTY of math is undoubtedly lost on those who gravitated toward entertainment to avoid dealing with fractions. Still, there’s useful shorthand in reducing TV and media stories to algebraic equations.

Take Fox’s current success. Scribbled out on a big chalkboard, like they use in CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” the formula would look something like this:

American Idol + House + football – (everything else) x writers strike ÷ 15 hours per week = No. 1.

Fox will emerge as this season’s top-rated network, but once you get past its flagship cornerstones and extra yardage from the Super Bowl and college bowl games — well, as Bart Simpson would say, “Whoa, momma.”

Nobody has set the world afire development-wise lately, but other than the very good (if marginally rated) “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and marginally sleazy (if solidly rated) “Moment of Truth,” Fox has unleashed its own treehouse of horrors.

In hindsight, the spring has amounted to an extended shelf-clearing session, getting “Unhitched,” “New Amsterdam,” “Canterbury’s Law” and “The Return of Jezebel James” off the books. Yet Fox remains triumphant, in part because “American Idol’s” benefit to its weekly average is magnified by the fact that the network airs a third fewer primetime hours than ABC, CBS and NBC, which helps obscure a multitude of sins.

NOTABLY, the strike that muddled this season delayed Fox’s capable entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly from putting his stamp on the network’s lineup, and a truncated development process — coupled with scheduling disruptions associated with playoff baseball — might muffle whatever noise he and his team can muster even longer. Fairly assessing progress will thus have to wait until January, when “Idol” — which CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves rightly labeled a “monster” — again starts its Godzilla routine, laying waste to the TV landscape.

On the plus side for Fox, “Idol’s” warming glow exhibits no immediate signs of fading, and the strike has rendered this a throwaway season for everyone. If the network doesn’t begin kindling some new hits, however, Fox might regret spending so much time fiddling while the monster blazed away.

A FEW MORE EQUATIONS:

Staff cutbacks x Pulitzer winner (+ Hip-hop) = snafu. The Los Angeles Times is still sorting through circumstances surrounding its discredited story about a 1994 attack on the late rapper Tupac Shakur, but the episode brought to mind David Simon’s searing condemnation of newspapers in the final season of HBO’s “The Wire.”

Against the backdrop of another round of Times buyouts, it was noteworthy that according to the paper’s own account only one senior editor vetted such a potentially explosive story. The miscue reflects a troubling confluence of factors: Fewer editors at a cost-cutting Tribune paper; more pressure to generate attention; and the awards culture, represented here by the imprimatur of a Pulitzer Prize-winning star reporter, Chuck Philips — all ingredients in Simon’s indictment of where newspapers have gone astray.

Throw in, too, the variable of hip-hop culture, which is foreign enough to most editors to prevent them from exercising proper caution and skepticism.

Plenty of old newspaper hands decried “The Wire’s” depressing portrait, but Simon has every right to watch this situation unfold with a sense of vindication, albeit with fingers clasped over his eyes.

(News-lite + self-absorption) x (media buyer + adults 18-49) + Barbara Walters = 150

No, that wasn’t a typo in this week’s TV listings: ABC actually scheduled a special titled “Live to Be 150 … Can You Do It?,” with halfway-there host Barbara Walters.

Despite largely giving up on serious primetime news, networks keep seeking to wring profit out of their news divisions by offering more pizzazz — in ABC’s case, from staging hidden-camera morality plays in “What Would You Do?” to dangling the tantalizing prospect of science-fiction-style longevity. The irony is that media buyers (and therefore programmers) have zero interest in reaching adults past their mid-50s but aren’t above floating the idea of living 100 years beyond that to entice a younger audience.

Think of that as the spec’s unspoken subtext: “Live to be 150 … and then people that sell TV ads really won’t give a rat’s ass about what you watch!”

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