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Fox's Fall Was a Flop, So What's Plan B? Starts With an 'A,' of Course

By Lisa de Moraes
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Winter TV Press Tour 2009 starts in 10 days. After PBS warms up the TV critics with Q&A sessions about the censored Mark Twain Prize for Humor ceremony honoring George Carlin and the merits of a full-frontal-nude King Lear, and after the semiannual three-day cable network orgy of excess, the four Genuine Broadcast Networks will get four days to make their case as to why we should continue to treat them as something special despite their shrinking audience and increasingly cable-like approach to programming. CW won't even try to make a case -- they've taken a pass on this year's Q&As.

This is the first of a series looking at the Four Actual Broadcast Networks -- Fox, CBS, NBC and ABC -- so far this season. First up, Fox: still running in "Idol."

Last spring, Fox, the hottest chick at the party, landed J.J. Abrams -- the hottest date -- for the new TV season.

Fox had bought a J.J. spec script for a drama series called "Fringe." "Fringe" would be the series with which Fox finally broke out of its whole Tread Water Until "American Idol" Launches rut. Fox would become a major player in the fourth quarter.

It was not the love match they'd hoped for. And now Fox heads into Winter TV Press Tour 2009 in fourth place among broadcast networks and will once again fling itself at its old flame, "American Idol," in hopes the singing competition will put it back on top.

J.J., the much-fawned-over Hollywood Hyphenate (TV/film writer-producer-director) whose credits include "Mission: Impossible III" and "Star Trek: Prequel," was known for creating "Alias" and "Lost," the kind of convoluted, mythology-laden TV series viewers became slaves to, out of fear they'd miss a week and get totally lost.

J.J. described "Fringe" as a "nod to 'Altered States' and 'Scanners' and that whole Michael Crichton/Robin Cook world of medicine and science" with a "slight 'Twilight Zone' vibe."

Loosely translated, J.J. was saying the show is about a hot blond FBI agent who rescues a crazy genius research scientist from a mental institution so that he and his estranged son can help her solve paranormal mysteries.

Fox had already managed, for the first time in its history, to win the 2007-08 TV season, thanks to "American Idol," even though the singing competition took a ratings hit last season. Fox also finished first, for only the second time in its 21-year history, among 18-to-49-year-olds whom ad execs lust after -- so much so they will pay a premium to a network that can deliver them to their ads. But the network always struggled, to varying degrees, in the fall. At Fox, the action started in January, when "Idol" returned.

At J.J.'s meeting with Fox suits, he reportedly told them he felt sure his voice was a Fox voice -- which was odd, given that he'd created "Felicity" for WB, and "Lost," "Alias" and "What About Brian" for ABC.

But for Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori and his right-hand exec, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly -- the two guys who put FX on the map when they ran it, with dark, nichey shows like "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" -- "Fringe" was like raw meat and they were the piranhas. It was dense, it was paranormal, it was irresistibly confusing and it was J.J.

"It's a bull's-eye for us," Liguori told trade reporters at the time about the "Fringe" project -- adding that Reilly "can drain every bit of quality out of this." He meant that, of course, in the best possible sense, though we don't know what that would be.

Fox spared no expense on the launch of "Fringe." Two dozen cows were herded through Manhattan streets along with people handing out "Fringe" graft (a cow has a starring role in the show). An eczema of "Fringe" billboards erupted all across the country. You could hardly watch Fox's broadcast of the baseball All-Star Game for all the "Fringe" logos pasted across the screen. The network even announced "Fringe" viewers would be subjected to fewer ads than usual -- Remote-Free TV, the network called it -- to enhance their viewing pleasure.

The press gobbled it up by the shovelful. Before its unveiling, adoring TV critics asked J.J. at a news conference how it felt to have the show that was going to "save the fall" television season.

"Any pressure or expectations for this, or any other show, could ruin a show," J.J. proclaimed.

But so confident were Fox execs that "Fringe" was the Next Big Thing, they went ahead and launched it at 8 o'clock on a Tuesday -- two weeks before the official start of the TV season and without the benefit of a strong lead-in show to feed its viewers.

The honeymoon ended that night. Only 9.1 million people tuned in to see that $10 million first episode. That's nearly 9 million fewer viewers than had watched the launch of J.J.'s biggest TV success, "Lost," back in the fall of '04.

Even after "Fringe" moved to its regular 9 p.m. Tuesday time slot, with the benefit of "House" lead-in audiences, it never really took off. To date it is only the country's 33rd most watched show, averaging 9.9 million viewers. Among those coveted 18-to-49-year-olds, "Fringe" is the season's No. 15-ranked series -- a ranking it shares with David Caruso of "CSI: Miami." In fairness, it is the most successful new show in that age bracket, though this speaks more to how badly most new shows are doing.

Once again, Fox doggy-paddled back to the lifeboat that is "American Idol."

The singing competition is, for understandable reasons, not the ratings stud it once was. It's going into its eighth season -- which in reality-TV years is nearly as old as Jay Leno.

Even so, Fox execs are clearly concerned about the show's drop last season. Preparing for this latest "Idol" edition, they've aggressively tinkered with the show. They've added a fourth judge -- pop songwriter-producer Kara DioGuardi -- in hopes she will ratchet up the Paula crazy and add some new jargon for the judges to pull out of their Bag o' Comments, which last season were mostly limited to "You're in the dawg house!," "You sound like a cruise ship karaoke singer" and "You made it your own."

The bulk of the changes, however, are about taking the show back to what it was before Fox suits started potchkying around with it -- though, sadly, the weekly viewer-voting results show is so chockablock with product placement it will continue to feel like a long walk in the desert each week.

The wild-card feature is back, allowing the judges to pick some of the semifinalists. They've stripped away a lot of the glitz, including "Idol Gives Back" week in which A-list celebrities like Christina Aguilera, Jack Black and Miley Cyrus push the Idolettes aside, put on their Caring Face and plug their latest movie, CD or whatever in the name of charity.

They've slashed the number of broadcasts in which lousy auditioners will be mocked in order to make the show more upbeat and aspirational -- the promos, too, you've probably noticed.

Meanwhile, in amongst the "Idol" broadcasts, Fox will launch the rest of Liguori and Reilly's slate of new scripted series, a slate that is not the kind of populist television -- like "Idol" -- that would attract broadcast-size audience. Instead, it's a slate that speaks to Liguori and Reilly's love of their dark nichey days at FX.

They are shows like Joss Whedon's new "Dollhouse." The one-hour drama is about a really hot chick who's part of an underground group and who each week has her personality wiped out at a secret facility called the Dollhouse, so she can, for money, assume another personality to help out the wealthy, the powerful and the well-connected. And have a lot of sex. Where I come from, we called them "hookers." Whatever.

Also on the horizon, a one-hour musical comedy series called "Glee" from "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy, about a teacher who heads a high school's glee club that used to be at the top of the show-choir world but which a series of scandals have turned into a "haven for misfits and social outcasts." Want to bet it gets a post-"Idol" time slot?

"I've had one of my best experiences of my career with Ryan Murphy doing 'Nip/Tuck,' " Reilly told trade paper the Hollywood Reporter. "We're excited to re-create that experience here."

And, very likely, the ratings, too.

Tomorrow, CBS: broadcast's best-kept secret.

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