Fox Shuts Down 'Happy Hour' Early, and There'll Soon Be No 'Justice' in This World

Fox's first early shutdown of the new fall season: the sitcom
Fox's first early shutdown of the new fall season: the sitcom "Happy Hour." (By Kwaku Alston -- Fox Via Associated Press)
By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's the second week of the new TV season -- time for Fox suits to start yanking new series off their lineup while muttering strange West L.A. expletives about Rupert Murdoch's post-season baseball commitments.

Those of you playing Bravo's Brilliant but Cancelled DeathWatch game on the Internet who bet Fox's "Happy Hour" would be the season's first cancellation will be pleased to know the network has shelved the new sitcom, effective immediately.

Fox assures us it will return to the schedule in early November, post-baseball.

But, of course, it also was supposed to be on the air for more than three weeks before getting the hook. Yes, the industry can be cruel to new series, even a groundbreaking one about a guy who dares to drink martinis in the so-called Family Hour in full sight of FCC Chief Hall Monitor Brent Bozell.

"Happy Hour" started well enough, opening with an audience of about 7 million viewers on Sept. 9. Two weeks later that crowd was down to about 4.4 million, less than half NBC's audience for "The Office" in the same Thursday 8:30 p.m. half-hour. Even more ominous, by Week 3 "Happy Hour" had fumbled about a third of the young viewers "The O.C." had clocked in the same three-week period last fall. Did I mention "Happy Hour" is about a guy who worships Dean Martin? Maybe Fox should have reconsidered that concept.

But "Happy Hour" isn't the only new Fox series on the wounded list. This week may be your last chance to watch Jerry Bruckheimer's legal drama "Justice," starring Victor Garber as a repellent but brilliant older lawyer mentoring hottie baby lawyers. It will be replaced by a "House" repeat next week.

In its short life, "Justice" fell from an audience of nearly 9 million to nearly 6 million. That said, its three-week performance among viewers of all ages and among those younger viewers Fox targets was much stronger than the network's average in the time slot during the same period last fall, when it aired a medley of shows including "So You Think You Can Dance," "Bernie Mac" and "Head Cases."

I know, I had to look it up, too. "Head Cases" starred Chris O'Donnell as a repellent but brilliant younger lawyer mentoring mentally unbalanced lawyer Adam Goldberg. It was infamously canceled after its second broadcast. "Justice" has now beat it by exactly one episode -- unless it is one of the lucky few new series to find their way back from the dark place known as "on hiatus at Fox."

Fox suits insist they're taking both "Justice" and "Happy Hour" off the schedule because airing them one more time won't give the execs any additional data for deciding whether to keep the shows going. That's because this week "Happy Hour" would have aired against the unveiling of ABC's "Ugly Betty," about a bright but plain young woman who lands a job as assistant to the Top Guy at a fashion magazine because Top Guy's daddy -- Media Conglomerate Big Cheese -- is sick and tired of his son shagging assistants.

Next week's episode of "Justice" would have battled the season debut of ABC's "Lost." Both ABC debuts are expected to garner large audiences. So, you can see how whatever ratings "Justice" and "Happy Hour" got those weeks would have to be tossed out as anomalies.

Of course, Fox has known for weeks that these face-offs were coming. And if "Justice" and "Happy Hour" had been averaging 20 million viewers, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

"When did Fox start running in fear from an ugly teenaged girl," cracked one competitor who insisted on anonymity because he does his best work that way.

But, this time of year, Fox generally gets a pass on its ratings performance. The Reporters Who Cover Television have totally bought into the notion that Fox muddles along as best it can with its fourth quarter, hampered as it is with baseball playoffs and the World Series, and they wait patiently for Fox to bring back "American Idol" to its lineup, leaving the other networks eating its ratings dust.

This, naturally, rubs Fox competitors the wrong way. They point out that, unlike a couple of years ago when Fox played rope-a-dope with Mike Darnell Reality Theater in the fall, this was the season Fox was supposed to have finally figured out the fourth quarter, debuting shows early, going for a slightly broader audience, etc.

The results have been less than spectacular, with Monday's serialized drama "Vanished" getting about a third fewer young viewers than the network enjoyed in its time slot last fall; Tuesday's Ron Livingston dramedy "Standoff" fumbling large chunks of its "House" lead-in; and "Celebrity Duets" turning off about 50 percent of young viewers who had watched Fox last fall on Fridays.

"Baseball isn't the issue," the competitor theorized. "The issue is not developing good shows -- baseball's been on 50 years."

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