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As 'X-Files,' 'Ally' End, Fox in a Fix

Analysis: Even with the network's critically lauded comedy 'Bernie Mac' and serialized drama '24,' next season could be thin.

April 20, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fox has scheduled another of its "Magic's Secrets Finally Revealed" specials to run during May, explaining how magician David Blaine pulled off the stunt in which he buried himself in ice.

What the network's executives might want to uncover, while they're at it, is who cast the spell that put a chill on their ratings.

The announcement this week that "Ally McBeal" would join "The X-Files" in ending its run next month represents a one-two punch to Fox, as the network loses two shows that were once darlings with viewers and critics but whose ratings--even allowing for a flurry of cast changes--have plunged this season.

For a network that provides only 15 hours per week of national programming in prime time (as opposed to the 22 hours scheduled by ABC, CBS and NBC), the departure of those two programs, coupled with other problem spots on its schedule, places Fox in an unenviable position: having to potentially add more hours of new series next fall than can easily be promoted and advertised in today's fragmented media marketplace.

With "The X-Files" and "Ally" exiting its lineup, Fox's roster of well-established series returning next season looks thin, including the tireless "The Simpsons," "Malcolm in the Middle" (which will likely be moved off of Sundays in the fall to help shore up another night), "Ally" creator David E. Kelley's "Boston Public," "That '70s Show," and the unsung Saturday-night tandem of "Cops" and "America's Most Wanted."

In a sense, Fox's troubles have escaped attention because they have been overshadowed by ABC, whose widely reported ratings descent has dominated talk within the entertainment industry through much of the current television season--fueled both by the decline of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and the changing cast within its management soap opera, including the replacement of programming chief Stu Bloomberg in January.

Fox also benefited from televising the most-watched World Series in years last fall as well as the Super Bowl in February, buoying its ratings average and thus masking some of its deficiencies. Since the Super Bowl telecast, however, the network has averaged 7.7 million viewers per week in prime time, an 18% drop versus the corresponding period last year.

The irony, if not especially surprising, is that Fox's woes come during a season in which many critics who bashed the network in the past have enthusiastically embraced some of its programming, including the new comedy "The Bernie Mac Show"--which recently won a prestigious Peabody Award--and the serialized drama "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland.

Still, the latter has struggled to find viewers in a difficult Tuesday time slot, and if the series returns it might be revised to a more conventional format, as opposed to the device of each episode representing one hour in an especially busy day. On the plus side, the show performs disproportionately well among affluent and better-educated viewers, an attribute that makes programs such as NBC's "The West Wing" more appealing to advertisers.

Other programs for which the network once harbored high hopes could also be in jeopardy, among them "Dark Angel," the science-fiction series produced by "Titanic" director James Cameron, who--trying to improve the program's chances for a third year--directed its upcoming season finale.

In an effort to jump-start its ratings, Fox could always unleash its executive vice president in charge of specials and alternative series, Mike Darnell, whose ability to tap into the zeitgeist has given rise to "When Animals Attack," "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?," "Temptation Island" and now "Celebrity Boxing." Yet even with Fox's renegade image, Darnell's concoctions come at a potential price to the network's image and, in their more extreme incarnations, tend to scare away blue-chip advertisers, muting whatever short-term boost they provide.

Fox officials note that the ratings swoon by "The X-Files" and "Ally McBeal" already has somewhat lowered the bar in terms of replacing them, with another new series from Kelley as well as a show from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon among candidates being considered as the network prepares to announce its fall 2002 prime-time lineup next month.

Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said the network understands it is in a rebuilding mode that requires a level of patience. "Quality is something that takes off in an almost viral way on television. It takes time," she said. "It's a snowball effect."

Still, patience is not one of the TV business' foremost personality traits. As for turning to so-called "reality" programming--on the order of "Temptation Island," which soared last season but fizzled when brought back for a second round--Berman noted that the goal is to achieve balance, using such fare "to round out the schedule, as opposed to being the schedule."

In short, Fox needs to look beyond stunts and gimmicks and focus on finding new hits capable of supplanting the ones it's losing. And while that's true for virtually all the networks, the latest headlines provide another reminder that even for a sly Fox, there might be no such thing as a quick fix.

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