Gail Berman is about to find out if stiff-lipped nannies and a flamboyant billionaire can keep TV viewers engaged until the "American Idol" kids come back in January.
The Fox entertainment president has loaded up the network's schedule with reality programming in coming weeks; with nine of its 15 prime-time hours devoted to returning and new unscripted shows such as "Nanny 911," that's believed to be the highest proportion of such fare ever offered by a major broadcast network.
Fox's move comes as a number of recent reality offerings have cooled in the ratings, while two new scripted shows, the ABC dramas "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," have broken out as enormous hits.
As she rolls the dice on reality, Berman also is gambling that last year's hottest Fox show, the youth soap "The O.C.," can survive and thrive in a new, brutally competitive 8 p.m. slot on Thursdays starting this week, opposite CBS' "Survivor: Vanuatu" and NBC's "Joey."
Both gambits are risky plays for the network, which, after a summer of disappointing ratings, finds itself for the moment at the top of the crucial young-adults ratings category, thanks to the Boston Red Sox, who went all the way to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years -- and brought millions of viewers to Fox in the process.
The post-baseball maneuvers clearly have high stakes as well for Berman -- a survivor in a post notorious for quick turnovers.
"Taken in a vacuum, it is a lot of reality on our schedule," Berman said Friday.
But she added that the offerings are in keeping with her plans, announced last spring, to launch shows year-round in a bid to minimize the disruptions caused by baseball. "It would be foolhardy," she said, "to just keep doing the same thing."
So until "Idol" returns -- presumably along with its youthful fan base -- the network is delaying the season launch of its established spy drama "24."
Instead, executives are banking on high-concept reality series such as "Nanny 911," in which a team of British child-care providers rush to rescue parents with bratty kids, and "The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best," featuring globe-trotting mogul Richard Branson daring young hopefuls in spectacular stunts and adventures.
They're also bringing back the makeover shows "Renovate My Family" and "The Swan" and adding a comedy-laced reality show, "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss."
In fact, Fox may have little choice but to vamp for two months, hemmed in by baseball on one side and the traditional post-Christmas rush of midseason shows on the other.
"They're waiting for midseason," said Shari Ann Brill of Carat Media in New York.
"They have always been a midseason player," especially since the second cycle of "Idol" delivered huge numbers with its January 2003 launch.
Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative Media noted the risk in investing in so many reality shows, though, pointing out that "scripted programming is enjoying a bit of a resurgence with viewers this season -- particularly [in] formats that are slightly askew from the norm."
"It will be difficult to see growth relative to last season's regular programming without a breakout hit," Koerner said via e-mail.
Hits are one thing. For Fox, clearly part of the plan also is to avoid last year's October surprise, when most of the network's new fall shows -- including the highly touted drama "Skin," about the family of a Los Angeles porn overlord -- quickly bombed.
Fox found itself floundering just as the TV business headed into the November sweeps, the quarterly rating period that helps local stations determine rates for advertisers.
"November wound up being a difficult and ultimately unsuccessful month for us," Berman admitted.
A former producer who was instrumental in developing the hit sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle," Berman, 47, has steered programming at Fox for more than four years, longer than any of her predecessors in the network's tumultuous 18-year history.
The brief lifespan of Fox programmers has become such a familiar joke in Hollywood that Berman laughs when she tells people she's been with the company just long enough for her pension to vest.
But the clock may be ticking a little louder these days. Fox has not developed a fresh breakout hit since "The O.C." debuted in August 2003. Berman is bringing back the critically acclaimed sitcom "Arrested Development" for a second season, despite low ratings.