The Fox network, usually one step ahead of the crowd when it comes to new programming genres, will test a one-hour movie during the February sweeps race.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the programming is being developed as a way to revive those ripped-from-the-headlines TV movies that plagued the airwaves a few seasons back.
First up: a one-hour flick on the as-yet-unsolved JonBenet Ramsey murder, based on a Vanity Fair article. And yes, Fox is rushing to get it on the air before CBS debuts its four-hour JonBenet miniseries during the February sweeps derby.
"We're trying to create a new genre," said Mike Darnell, Fox's head of alternative programming. He's the guy who almost single-handedly saved the network from ratings oblivion when he invented the schlock reality genre. Among his most notable achievements are "World's Wildest Police Chases," "When Animals Attack," "When Good Pets Go Bad" and "Busted on the Job."
After three Long Island Lolita TV movies a few years ago, sanity returned and viewers began to shy away from those true-crime-usually- against-women movies. Around the same time, the networks discovered the big-budget special-effects TV movie, the feeble-excuse-to-sell- a-soundtrack-CD TV movie, and the inanely saccharine TV movie.
But Darnell thinks there's still an audience for movies based on overreported true crimes: young women.
Young women love Fox's prime-time drama series "Ally McBeal," "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Party of Five." Their TV diet also includes almost all of the WB lineup: "Dawson's Creek," "Seventh Heaven" and "Charmed." These young women have one major flaw: They don't like the reruns. So their fave shows are among TV's worst-performing repeats.
Darnell's answer? Instead of a rerun, feed 'em a low-cost "mini-movie," as Darnell calls them. Fox's JonBenet mini-movie will play out "the three most likely" whodunit scenarios, Darnell said: One for each parent and one with an insider committing the crime.
An important part of the "mini-movie" formula is keeping down the cost. So each will have a budget of around $800,000, about 70 percent less than a typical two-hour TV movie, and lunch money compared with the cost of a one-hour drama series episode.
Darnell's a busy man; he'll have more reality stuff on the Fox prime-time schedule in the February sweeps than in any previous ratings race. That includes the Chuck Woolery-hosted game show, "Greed," as well as his police video show Friday nights at 8; another of Robbie Knievel's jumping specials, this time over a train before it plows into him; another "Banned in America: World's Sexiest Commercials"; several versions of "TV Guide's Truth Behind the Sitcom Scandals"; and another special blowing the lid off a magician's secrets, this time David Blaine, whom ABC trots out nearly every sweeps race.
This is ironic, because the Fox studio's No. 1 television guy, Sandy Grushow, today told The Reporters Who Cover Television that Fox was getting out of the schlock-reality- special business.
His exact words were, "You will never see a 747 crash-land on the Mojave Desert on the Fox network." (Fox, you'll remember, had toyed with that idea as a sweeps stunt.)
And, when TRWCT were skeptical--can you blame them?--he got exasperated and said that he would "rather be up here talking about [Fox series] than this crap."
Schlock reality shows "have no sustainable value" and are, in fact, destroying the Fox brand, Grushow said. The crowd was with him on that. But they wanted more; they wanted him to promise that no schlockumentary will show up on the Fox network again. He declined to do so, explaining "we need to get through the year" and that the network has some inventory of the stuff it has to air. But, he added, "Trust me when I tell you we're going to eat a lot of this stuff."
Fox network programming chief Doug Herzog--who, you'll remember, we said one year ago had the most dangerous job in Hollywood--celebrated his first anniversary at the press tour. He's had a lousy season so far, but one day earlier finally got a break when "Malcolm in the Middle" debuted to an audience of 22.4 million--the biggest debut for Fox since "The Simpsons."
"I've done the math and it only took exactly 365 days to have a good day," Herzog joked.
That was a tactical error. Nobody at Fox is supposed to have a good day; it's in their contracts. So not long after Herzog made the joke, his new boss, Grushow, made sure he didn't make it two in a row by giving him a halfhearted not-really-an- endorsement before about 200 reporters and critics.
Grushow had been asked to address rumors that he and Herzog did not see eye to eye. The two had butted heads when Grushow was head of the 20th Century Fox TV production company, before he assumed oversight of both that division and the network. And he was not among those who picked Herzog--a broadcast TV novice--for the entertainment division chiefdom.
Grushow said he would characterize their relationship as "positive and growing" but quickly added, "It's impossible to legislate these things; we've obviously been thrown together."
Sunday's "Malcolm" ratings "have a way of making people feel really good about one another" and "we hope to capitalize on that."
"Where it all winds up is for the future to tell," Grushow said.
A few minutes back, Grushow had referred to Darnell as "one of the finest creative executives working in the business today."
Now, don't forget, the last three suits to fill Herzog's position were on the two-year-and-outta-there plan. Including, I might add, Grushow, who got his walking papers after two seasons, then went outside the firm for his next gig, only to return a few years later to head up the TV production outfit.
You'd think he would've shown a little more compassion toward Herzog.
Compassion . . . Fox . . . ha, ha, ha, ha!
Afterward, Herzog was philosophical. "There are no ringing endorsements" in this business, he said, adding that he knew the job was risky going in. "All you have to do is look behind you," he said.
CAPTION: JonBenet Ramsey.