Fox fix on bosses' agenda

TV: Network executives acknowledge this season has been ugly so far.

January 12, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- From "Ally" to "Harsh Realm," the season so far has been a disaster and the short term future isn't looking all that much better, especially with time running out on efforts to bring back "The X-Files" for an eighth season.

That bleak assessment of the Fox television network might not sound like news, given the pounding the network has been taking in the press the past few months, except that it was delivered here yesterday by its senior management.

"Not only has our overall performance declined, but we've even begun to see the dilution of our valuable brand identity," said Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television

Entertainment Group, who took over in November in an attempt to save a sinking prime-time schedule.

"We've heard it from advertisers, marketing researchers and many of you in this room. And the question we now have to ask ourselves is: How are we going to turn this thing around?" Grushow told reporters gathered here for a preview of midseason programming.

Brand identity is everything in the 100-channel television universe. It's what separates you from the pack, allows you to cut through the clutter. Grushow described Fox's sense of its identity by saying, "We're situated somewhere in between HBO and the Big Three [ABC, CBS and NBC]. When we get it right in a program, it's cultural-phenomenon time. When we get it wrong, it's ugly."

Mostly, it's been ugly this fall, Grushow and Doug Herzog, the president of Fox Entertainment, acknowledged time and again during their session with the press.

Asked about "Ally," the half-hour pasted-together clip job of "Ally McBeal" episodes that had already aired, Grushow said, "It was a cheap idea, a bad idea. It just didn't work."

Last summer, Herzog and David E. Kelley, creator of "Ally McBeal," hailed it as the future of network TV in terms of finding new ways to use old product.

As for the vile "reality specials," such as "When Good Pets Go Bad" and "When Animals Attack," Grushow promised they would end. Comparing them to heroin, he said, "We have to get away from this stuff."

Grushow quickly came down from the high ground, however, when asked if such specials would disappear from Fox immediately, saying the network had "some on the shelf, which we will have to air." In other words, their newfound higher standards will only kick in at the point where it won't cost them any money.

Grushow seemed especially unhappy about having to report no progress in talks with producer Chris Carter or star David Duchovny of "The X-Files." Duchovny says he is not coming back for an eighth season, and Carter has said he won't continue the series without Duchovny.

Grushow said while talks continue with both Carter and Duchovny, the chances are "no better than 50-50 at this point" that the show will return. Gillian Anderson is under contract to Fox for an eighth season, but Grushow said Fox is not yet at the point of talking about the possibility of going on without Duchovny. In terms of its production schedule, "The X-Files" is only about a month away from shooting its last episode of the schedule.

"So, yes, we are at the point where those decisions have to be made. If this is the end, we want to make sure `The X-Files' is sent off in a way that's fitting," Grushow said.

The debut of "Malcolm in the Middle" Sunday night offered a small ray of hope, but even Herzog acknowledged one week of decent ratings does not a hit make. "The story of `Malcolm' will be told over the next couple of weeks," he said.

An all-day look at the flu

Flu sufferers and would-be sufferers (which means just about all of us) will find themselves spotlighted today on NBC (WBAL, Channel 11) and MSNBC.

Beginning with "Today" (7 a.m.-9 a.m.), NBC news will spend the day looking at the flu virus running rampant throughout the land. Reports during "Today" will try to answer why the flu is so bad this year. "Later Today" (11 a.m.-noon) will include a report from a hospital emergency room, while "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw" (6: 30 p.m.-7 p.m.) will look at the science behind and the history of the various flu viruses. "Dateline NBC" (8 p.m.-9 p.m.) promises to suggest ways of either avoiding or coping with the flu bug.

Throughout the day, MSNBC plans to focus on the flu, culminating in a 10 p.m. special dedicated to fighting the disease.

-- Chris Kaltenbach

Rare look inside CIA

For a look at some things you've probably never seen before, check out the Discovery channel Sunday for "On the Inside: The CIA," a rare opportunity to watch as TV cameras venture inside the agency's Langley, Va., offices and speak with CIA officials and operatives, both past and present.

Although it could do without the re-creations of some CIA missions -- including the rescue of Kurt Muse, an American imprisoned in Panama for attempting to de-stabilize the Noriega government -- the two-hour program offers tantalizing tidbits of information.

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