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Fall on Fox: More 'Idol,' an Ad-Free '24' Episode


Fox will air a second installment of its teen talent contest "American Idol" early next year and will also debut its Emmy-nominated drama "24" with a commercial-free episode, top network officials said Sunday at an annual gathering of television reporters in Pasadena.

Without much else to crow about, such as ratings or the strength of its overall schedule, the network replaced the obligatory opening sales pitch with a choir, led in song by comedian Cedric the Entertainer, who will have a new sitcom on Fox called "Cedric the Entertainer Presents."

Prayer is a fitting theme for Fox, whose ratings woes were overshadowed during the 2001 television season by ABC's precipitous declines. All the major broadcast networks face dwindling audience shares as viewers scan through a host of options, but Fox and ABC have felt it more acutely of late.

While Fox used the Super Bowl and World Series to edge out CBS for second place among viewers ages 18 to 49, coveted by advertisers, the network, fourth in total viewers, faces the same challenge as slumping ABC--to rebuild brand identity and draw attention to its programming at a time of increasing viewer fragmentation, when even critically lauded programming fails to make a ripple.

"American Idol," in which aspiring young singers are whittled down to finalists who compete for a recording contract, has at least given Fox a boost in summer viewership, particularly among young females. The first installment of the series has its finale Sept. 4, with the second go-round to be broadcast sometime in 2003, said Gail Berman, Fox's entertainment president.

Fox will have another fall season in which coverage of the major league baseball playoffs and World Series will stagger the roll-out of its prime-time lineup over several months (assuming there is no lockout or strike). While a host of series will start in September, others, including "The Simpsons," "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Girls Club," a new drama from David E. Kelley, won't debut until late October or early November.

And the network must also recover from the loss of both "Ally McBeal" and "The X-Files," whose long runs on Fox ended last season amid declining ratings.

But Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, argued that with the sitcom "The Bernie Mac Show" and the critically acclaimed "24," Fox "did better than most" in introducing new scripted series to audiences last season. "24," which struggled for ratings despite critical raves, debuts on Oct. 29 in a commercial-free episode sponsored by Ford Motor Co. There had been speculation that Fox would change the show's serialized format (an entire season tracks 24 hours in the chaotic counter-terrorism life of Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland). While offering few specifics, Berman said the show's second season won't be undergoing any radical format shifts.

"The Bernie Mac Show," starring comedian Bernie Mac, is moving to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, opposite another sitcom with an African American cast, ABC's "My Wife and Kids," starring Damon Wayans.

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