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Upfront Scorecard: Fox Pushes Back Against Cable Challenge

Mixed Bag for Comedies (Feh), While Dramas and Limited Series Show Promise

Fox talked a pretty good strategic game during its upfront presentation. If only more of its shows — based, admittedly, on the limited view from the cut-down clips shown — had been equal to the task.

Adopting a broader focus than NBC, Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly opened the event by chatting up broadcast television’s unique “scale and consistency” compared to cable, where some channels “have a legitimate hit or two.” At a moment where the networks faced stories in major newspapers like the New York Times charting their decline, it seemed like a shrewd attempt to try restoring faith in the medium, and Fox enlisted outside voices to join in a taped segment.

Still, Fox’s development appeared to offer a decidedly mixed bag, and the network didn’t present anything that indicated a comprehensive scheme to address the biggest problem it faces — namely, the cannibalization issue with “The X Factor” in the fall and “American Idol” in the winter and spring. So far, shuffling judges and Simon Cowell’s bravado hasn’t provided much of a solution, and while Reilly spoke about “Idol’s” durability, with the two shows occupying such a sizable chunk of Fox’s 15-hour schedule, almost any other inroads could be eclipsed if the talent programs continue to fade.

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Elsewhere, Fox showcased one sitcom that seemed to have ample potential in Seth MacFarlane’s “Dads,” and a lot of others — starting with “Enlisted,” which looks like a good reason to go rent “Stripes” again — that made me feel slightly more charitable toward NBC’s presentation earlier in the day. (Another possible exception: “Us & Them,” an adaptation of the U.K. romantic comedy “Gavin & Stacey,” here starring Jason Ritter and Alexis Bledel.)

By contrast, Fox’s plans to do a spate of limited series — including the much-discussed 12-part “24” revival — seems like a terrific response to the difficulty of sustaining some of these big serialized concepts, and its new dramas generally looked big and cinematic, including the gothic, “X-Files”-ish “Sleepy Hollow” (pictured above) and “Almost Human.” That doesn’t mean Fox won’t screw them up, naturally (witness how “The Following” went skidding off the rails creatively speaking), but it does give them an opportunity to garner attention — or at the very least, create a lot of buzz around Comic-Con time.

Reilly noted that Fox’s programs “dominate in the social space … And that engagement has value.” It does, but even now, an engaged audience isn’t a substitute for a mass one, unless you’re operating in the rarefied environs of the pay-cable realm.

All told, the Fox presentation had a lot in common with the network itself — occasionally playful, clever and ambitious, and at other times a little too smugly pleased with itself and grating.

Give Fox a slight edge simply for liveliness relative to NBC, but for those networks yet to present this week, the “Wow” factor bar hasn’t been set too high to clear.

Preliminary grade: B-

(Upfront presentations are graded on a curve, so all evaluations are subject to revision at the end of the week.)

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