More than a decade after it became a network, Fox is finally making news--squeezing into the already crowded prime-time news arena with "Fox Files," whose run as a full-fledged series begins tonight.
After a brief summer outing as a series of specials, "Fox Files" joins the swarm of prime-time news-related programs. With "Fox Files," 11 newsmagazines now run across the four major networks and CBS will bring on "60 Minutes II" in January. And while some suggest the format is saturated, Fox officials hope to finally fill a void that has proven a source of criticism--that the network hasn't established a credible prime-time news presence since its launch.
"It's very important for Fox to have a newsmagazine on the air," said Paul Schulman, president of the media buying firm Schulman/Advanswers NY. "Rupert Murdoch perceives that as being very important, and they will give this project every benefit and assistance to make it work."
In fact, Murdoch, the head of Fox parent News Corp. Inc., has long maintained that news is a priority at the network. Though Fox executives declined to specify how much is being spent on the venture, the investment in the set alone is substantial.
"We've got a $200-million set," said Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. Built so that anchors Catherine Crier and Jon Scott will broadcast from Grand Central Terminal, Ailes said, "a viewer will be able to sense the rhythm and the beat. It's the kind of pace a Fox show should have."
Fox has traditionally prided itself on its youthful, "edgy attitude," and is hoping to bring that energy and distinction to "Fox Files." Unlike other newsmagazines, stories are underscored with flashy, quick-cut editing and heavy doses of music, as well as slow-motion and black-and-white footage.
"We're setting ourselves apart from the pack because Fox has a bit of an attitude, and we're doing stories the other programs would not do," said Crier, formerly of "20/20" and CNN. "We have an incredible opportunity here."
Series executives say the target is a more youthful audience that might not tune into "60 Minutes" or "Dateline NBC." Network officials called the summer specials "the youngest-skewing news program on prime-time television." Stories included a piece on destructive youths who use methamphetamines, white teens who are fans of rap music and try to copy the black urban lifestyle, and an exclusive interview with rocker Tommy Lee just days after his release from jail after a spousal abuse conviction.
Said Ailes, who also serves as the show's executive producer: "We have great admiration for the other shows, but we're doing something completely different. I think we have a formula that will work."
Not everyone agrees. CBS' highly touted "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel" has already fallen victim to bad ratings this year.
"This show may survive, but it may not flourish," said Ed Turner, a senior fellow at the Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank, who believes "Fox Files" pales in comparison to other newsmagazines. "I don't think any of these new shows can achieve the impact and gravity that '60 Minutes' and '20/20' have."
Bryce Nelson, chair of graduate studies in journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, said: "It's difficult enough for the existing ones to find enough good stories as it is. Even '20/20' and '60 Minutes' don't come up with high-quality stories every week."
Ailes concedes he has obstacles to overcome with the new project.
"These types of shows are evolutionary, not revolutionary," Ailes said. "We have to find an audience that likes the kinds of stories we'll be doing, and it will take time. There is no history of overnight success."
As for the criticism on the "Fox Files" style, Ailes countered: "No guts, no glory. When you get your head up as we're doing, people are going to take shots."
One of the most unusual aspects of "Fox Files" will be its Grand Central set, a key change from the studio stage where anchors Crier and Scott were stationed this summer.
In addition to returning correspondents Chris Cuomo, the son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Eric Shawn and Catherine Herridge, former "Extra" host Arthel Neville will join the show.
Despite his reservations, Freedom Forum's Turner said: "Roger is a damn good showman. I just hope they stay away from the supermarket tabloid type of stuff."
Crier said she wasn't concerned about being lumped in with other newsmagazines. "We're the only one on Fox," she joked. "After us, they can close the door on newsmagazines."
* "Fox Files" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.