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As baseball continues, Fox shifts its prime-time lineup

October 06, 2006|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

In what is becoming as much an autumn ritual for Fox television as its broadcast of Major League Baseball's postseason, the network announced Thursday that it's reshuffling its fall prime-time lineup and substituting in some new players.

The network, which finished last season No. 1 among adults 18 to 49, is moving a pair of its new dramatic shows -- "Justice" and "Vanished" -- to different nights. And it's also trading 9 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tuesday time slots between its third new dramatic series, "Standoff," with its current hit show "House."

"Justice," Jerry Bruckheimer's show about criminal defense lawyers, is getting a vote of confidence despite mediocre ratings by moving from Wednesday to Monday, beginning Oct. 23. The new show should also benefit from a robust lead-in from "Prison Break."

"We think there's a show here in 'Justice,' " said Preston Beckman, Fox's scheduling chief. "We need to give it a chance to grow an audience and there's a lot of upside on Mondays."

Meanwhile, the ratings-challenged drama "Vanished," which already killed off its leading man played by actor Gale Harold after just seven episodes, may have an even tougher time remaining visible as it travels from Mondays to Friday nights starting Oct. 27. And finally, Fox will bench "Nanny 911," for now at least, and introduce "The Rich List," based on a British quiz show where teams compete against each other to complete lists for prizes, on Nov. 1.

All the moves come amid an almost perennial ratings struggle the network endures largely as a result of the disruptive scheduling force brought on by the baseball postseason. In addition to lackluster ratings for its three new dramatic series, Fox has enjoyed few laughs with its pair of comedies, "Happy Hour" and the heavily promoted " 'Til Death." None of the shows has, as the entertainment-business saying goes, found much audience "traction."

Although Beckman and other Fox executives aren't overjoyed with the uninspired fall showing, particularly by the new programs, they aren't ready to mash any panic buttons.

Shows such as "House" and "Prison Break" continue to do well and the fall ratings troubles have become an accepted part of managing Fox's annual broadcast of the major league postseason. And, at the end of the television season, the network will almost certainly still be crowned the demographic ratings winner -- thanks again to the powerhouses of "American Idol," "House" and "24."

"I was joking earlier this week that there have been a lot of obits written for Fox over the past two or three years," Beckman said. "But when the dust settles, we're probably going to be in first place."

The scenario is something of a rerun for Fox.

The network once waited until after baseball was over to unveil its shows, a move that proved detrimental to new programming, said Beckman. Since then, Fox has learned it's better to launch new shows early and then use the break provided by baseball to reevaluate the time slot, even the creative direction, of certain shows. Indeed, rumors persist that " 'Til Death," which will return with new episodes Nov. 2, is undergoing creative changes.

"We play our own game," Beckman said. "We've figured out how to schedule around baseball, but what that does is create this appearance of not looking as strong as the other guys."

"House" once limped along in the ratings until it was paired with "American Idol." Last week, the show starring Hugh Laurie finished ninth in the coveted 18-49 demographic. Similarly, analysts believe Fox is wisely assessing where to reposition some of its new shows in hopes of giving them a needed ratings boost.

"It's really like a chess match," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis of ad buyer Starcom USA. "They can move around shows as they need to and they're just lying in wait to see where to do it. They're smart because they have the trump cards with 'American Idol' and '24.' "

"The O.C.," which opens its fourth season Nov. 2 in the 9 p.m. Thursday slot, will likely plug the leak caused by the Simon Cowell flop "Celebrity Duets." Regarding "Duets," Beckman said: "We needed to fill a void on Thursdays and we took a shot. Honestly, it hasn't worked out."

Although "The O.C." has lost its initial ratings luster, Fox executives are confident it will hold its core audience on one of television's toughest nights.

But whether Fox's artillery is enough to rescue its new shows, especially its comedies, is another question. "They have a lot riding on their comedy block," Caraccioli-Davis said. "But I think advertisers don't have as much faith in that Thursday night lineup as they once did."

In the meantime, as the baseball postseason unfolds, Fox executives will be cheering for a ratings bonanza -- a Dodgers-New York Yankees World Series that goes seven games.

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