Fox's risky programming strategy sends the network scrambling

Television's Midseason Report -- Michael Hill in L.A.

January 07, 1991|By MichaeL Hill

LOS ANGELES A LOT OF NETWORK television is often described as a product of smoke and mirrors, but these days the Fox network is NTC beginning to look like something held together with Scotch tape and a paste pot.

This midseason Fox is trying to recover from its ambitious expansion in the fall. With 10 new shows on the air, Peter Chernin, the network's entertainment president, admitted that no backup programs were ready to rush into the weak spots.

"We put every single thing we could find on the air," Chernin said of the fall schedule. "We completely cleaned out the cabinets. We really went onto the air without any backup programming, and, honestly, we've been scrambling ever since to come up with some backup shows.

"So we stuck with things a little bit longer than we should havbecause we really didn't have anything to replace them with quite yet."

Scrambling did seem to be the operative word as Fox made its presentation before the television critics gathered here. There were shows scheduled to go on the air that had yet to be shot, a big interactive game show that will get a tryout next month but appeared to be still in the conceptual stage, the replacement of a canceled show not with a new program, but simply by expanding its lead-in by a half hour, and so on.

Amid the near chaos, there seemed to be the perception that Fox had somehow lost the momentum that made it so hot six months ago when "The Simpsons" was becoming a national phenomenon and "In Living Color" was coming on strong.

In the fall moves, both were put up against tough competition, "The Simpsons" taking on "The Cosby Show" and "In Living Color" moving against "America's Funniest Home Videos." Both have suffered accordingly.

But, while fully admitting that Fox had plenty of problems, Chernin adamantly refused to admit that the big moves of the fall were a mistake.

"We felt what we really needed to do was establish the strengtof this network across more nights of the week, to really begin to build its profile," he said. "This company is really about taking risks, in many ways unprecedented risks that some might even characterize as foolhardy risks, in order to accomplish that growth.

"While there are clearly some mixed messages, I think the reporcard is positive, that we have successfully accomplished this large and risky expansion. We are now a successful presence on many more nights.

"A year ago, this was a network that really only had a profile oone night, Sunday. I think a year later, we're sitting here with a much larger profile. We are a real force to be reckoned with on the nights that we are programmed. We certainly have problems on many of those nights, but we're there and I think we're solidly established."

Chernin said he had no second thoughts about the move of "The Simpsons" to Thursday despite its plummet in the Nielsen ratings. For one, he said that those ratings have not dropped that much and that the show still attracts the young audience that Fox sells to advertisers.

"Our goal when we did this, we've said consistently, was to have 'The Simpsons' finish No. 2 two to 'Cosby' and to hopefully begin to establish some other programs. I think from our point of view, we have reached our goals," he said.

Chernin pointed to the success of the expanded "America's Most Wanted" on Friday nights and "Cops," which is expanding to an hour now that "American Chronicles" has been canceled, on Saturdays as establishing the network on those nights.

But he admitted that the programs around those shows have not been as successful, describing "Babes," which follows "The Simpsons," as "somewhat of a disappointment." Indeed, it was clear that another show would be trying to hold on to "The Simpsons" lead-in if the Fox programming cupboard was not so bare.

Fox will have another show from the production tearesponsible for "Married . . . with Children" to follow that show on Sundays, replacing the canceled "Good Grief." It's called "Top of the Heap" and is about the get-rich-quick schemes of a father-son team. Joe Bologna stars. It has yet to go into production, though a pilot has been shot.

Chernin said he was happy with Fox's Sunday night 7 to 8 hour of "True Colors" and "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," saying that they had successfully established a comedy block there.

But he could give but scant details about "Fantasy Park," th900-number-equipped game show that will give away huge prizes every week in some sort of glorified lottery, probably on Saturday nights if a tryout next month works.

So if not a hasty repair job with Scotch tape and paste, you at least got the feeling that Fox at midseason is a network in the middle of a high wire act. Chernin said he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Given any opportunity this company has either to take the cautious route, or to take the sort of ambitious, risky route," Chernin said, "believe me, we'll take the latter route.

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