The TV Column

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; Page M01

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.

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