Back in May, Fox Broadcasting announced it was going to year-round, first-run programming. No more Septembers with too many new shows to keep track of and Julys with nothing but reruns, Fox President Jamie Kellner promised.
Tonight, the fourth network makes its first delivery on that promise. At 8 on WBFF-TV (Channel 45), Fox is offering a new episode of "The Simpsons." At 9, "Beverly Hills 90210" starts a new cycle of programs -- one that otherwise would not have begun until the fall.
Fox advertisements boast that "The new season begins tonight." That is overstatement -- the kind we've come to expect from network advertising. But a new episode of a hit show and the start of a returning program's fall cycle in the middle of what used to be called the summer doldrums demand some explanation.
Part of the explanation is that the process of unveiling 30 or more new shows during a couple of weeks in September (as has mainly been the practice) is insane.
Kellner's right about that. Networks are throwing promotional dollars away because there are too many promotional messages competing for viewer attention in the fall. The networks are also throwing away programming dollars, because entire series are scrapped without the shows getting sampled during that period of clutter.
There are other reasons, though, for the new shows tonight. The big one is that broadcasting networks -- Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS -- cannot afford to lose viewers any longer during rerun summers and expect to get them back in the fall with new programs. Each year, the percentage of viewers that comes back to broadcast television (instead of cable and other options) is smaller and smaller.
Furthermore, Fox had very bad ratings last year. "Beverly Hills 90210," about a brother and sister who move from the Midwest to a new world of high school life in Beverly Hills, was one of the lowest rated of all prime-time shows. The network hopes it can get some new viewers to sample the series during the summer when there is less competition. The new episode of "The Simpsons" is being used to lure viewers over to the Fox channels to make them aware of the new programming which will continue through this month and next.
So, tonight, Bart is back. And those fans who saw the season-ender of "Beverly Hills 90210" and were left wondering whether Brenda (Shannen Doherty) was pregnant will get their answer.
It's not as big a change as Fox would have us believe. In fact, Fox tried some first-run programming a couple of summers ago. The new season isn't starting tonight. But viewers are getting some viewing options as Fox tries to adjust to the changing television landscape.