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A More Grown-Up Look for Fox : Television: With new entertainment president John Matoian and a powerful distribution system, the fourth network plans to expand its audience.

July 04, 1995|DANIEL HOWARD CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fox, Matoian said, "is not a place that has age 50-plus viewership at all. It's not likely to ever have it. One thing a lot of people criticized us for, particularly on Sunday nights, is saying you're handed a football lead-in that you guys have literally fumbled week in and week out. And in truth, we're going to fumble a good portion of that crowd no matter what, because there's a portion of that audience which is 55-plus males, who we will probably never capitalize on."

Matoian has special interest in fixing Fox's low-rated movie night on Tuesdays, which he admits to being "embarrassed" by since he arrived. For the first time in its history, Fox has invested in a high-profile slate of theatrical motion pictures, ranging from "In the Line of Fire" to "Cliffhanger" to "Bram Stoker's Dracula."

In original productions, Matoian wants to avoid woman-in-jeopardy TV movies by finding projects that feel like feature films. One of his first official moves at Fox was to strike up a deal with Hallmark Entertainment, which has a cachet with top talent. In other deals, Matoian turned to film director John Landis to produce a TV movie spinoff of "The Munsters," and he has ordered a new "Alien Nation" and a movie spinoff of the British science-fiction series "Dr. Who."

"One thing I know a little bit about from my history and success at CBS was that you have to market movies," Matoian said. He has allocated for the first time a separate marketing budget to promote Fox's movie night. "With a theatrical motion picture, it's most important what people say when they leave the theater. TV movies are all about getting people there to begin with."

Matoian has also signed off on "Mad TV," a TV version of Mad magazine, to compete once a week against NBC's ailing "Saturday Night Live." In addition to comedy sketches, "Mad TV" will feature bits from the juvenile humor magazine, such as an animated Spy vs. Spy and movie-ad parodies. Next fall, Matoian plans to introduce a late-night show during the week to compete with Jay Leno and David Letterman.

Despite the slight graying of Fox, the network has a long way to go in cleaning up its image, with the critically ravaged "Married . . . With Children" still going strong. In an effort to strip Fox of its foreign ownership, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People recently claimed that it "represents the worst traditions of American broadcasting." Rather than serve the public interest, Fox has "brought the greatest debasement of taste, character, quality and decency in television history," the NAACP said.

"I think that Fox has a stigma from the early days," Matoian said. "It is, in many ways, an unfair stigma, and in some ways probably a legitimate complaint. But you know, when you're starting out--and I wasn't here--you need to do something that makes a little noise and draws a little attention and provides an audience with what they're not getting.

"This place is evolving now in a very different way. What happened--and where the legitimate complaints came in--is that Fox got the notion that being wild and daring and brash and over the edge was enough, in and of itself. That's where the stumbling block came. Shows that went on the schedule that were sexy because they could be sexy, and had no other reason for being, failed and stigmatized this place, and appropriately so."

Does that mean no more ribald sitcoms from Fox? Not entirely. Fox has a fall sitcom called "The Crew," whose characters are described as "young and sexy [who] travel free to exotic locales, and they work only 15 hours a month."

Still, Matoian maintained: "There's a conscious effort on our part to give these things a better reason to be on the air than to just fulfill a brand identity." One thing he learned from teaching high school was "never underestimate the audience. I mean, what I learned with kids is to always make them go higher, and they'll go. So much of what's wrong with the education system and television tends to deny the intelligence of the audience."

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