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THE UPFRONTS

Fox stays tuned to TV crowd

Thursday was the final day of the weeklong "upfronts" held in New York City where the major television networks gather annually to present their new programming to media buyers.

May 16, 2008|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Fox Chairman of Entertainment Peter Liguori declared a new company motto on Thursday. During a conference call with reporters about its fall schedule, Liguori said, "At Fox, our mind-set is business as unusual."

The No. 1 broadcaster among 18-to-49-year-olds will also end the season as the most-watched (a title that belonged to CBS for many years), and Liguori promised that as competitors focus on multimedia platforms, his network will concentrate on the people who still watch TV from couches.

"While some of the other networks are focusing a lot on ancillary platforms in order to save their programming, at Fox, we really believe the better a series performs on a network, the more valuable it will be on all platforms," Liguori said, with a seeming swipe at rivals CBS and NBC. "It all starts with broadcast, and broadcast starts with viewers."

A few hours later, during the network's presentation at City Center, Liguori elaborated by declaring the era of "Remote-free TV" at Fox. Fox, he vowed, will air half the amount of commercials during the entire run of its two new dramas.

"Some see this as a scary financial prospect but we see it as an investment," Liguori said.

Acknowledging the impact of the writers strike on the development season, President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly said he opted to focus on fewer shows and postpone the airing of promising projects until the 2009-2010 season.

"Regardless of some of the spin I think you've heard this week, the strike did really cause some major development issues in town," Reilly said, in a jab at CBS. "But for us, we've really adjusted the strategy."

Making plans for the new stuff

As usual, Fox announced its schedule in two separate parts because of juggernaut "American Idol," which will be revamped going into its eighth season. Its most high-profile projects are two new dramas: "Fringe," which will premiere on Monday nights in August, and "Dollhouse," which will launch in January with "24."

Produced by J.J. Abrams ("Lost") and Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman ("Star Trek" and "Alias"), "Fringe" is a sci-fi/thriller/mystery about a flight that lands in Boston though the crew and passengers have all died grisly deaths. The other new program launching in the fall is the comedy "Do Not Disturb," set in a hip New York hotel. Niecy Nash ("Reno 911!"), Molly Stanton ("Twins"), and Brando Eaton ("Zoey 101") are in the cast.

In January, when Fox's momentum kicks in with "Idol" and the long-awaited return of "24," the network will launch "Dollhouse" and two new animated comedies: "The Cleveland Show" and "Sit Down, Shut Up."

"The second [part of the] season is when circulation really surges," Reilly said. "A lot of our competitors are announcing that they'll be programming a lot of the second [part of the] season with their new shows. I think they're doing it by default. We're doing it by strategy." (Reilly appeared to be sticking it to ABC, which has only two new shows premiering in the fall, with 17 more in development for midseason.)

Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse," which centers on an illegal house of men and women whose memories and personalities have been wiped, will lead in to "24," beginning in January. "The Cleveland Show" (a "Family Guy" spinoff) and "Sit Down, Shut Up," a new animated series by Mitch Hurwitz ("Arrested Development") will premiere in the spring. The cast includes Will Arnett, Maria Bamford, Jason Bateman, Will Forte, Nick Kroll, Tom Kenny, Cheri Oteri, Kenan Thompson and Henry Winkler.

"As we've become the No. 1 network, we've got one foot in the mature network and then we've got a very strong footing in the bull's-eye of what you may think of our brand," Reilly said, explaining his strategy. "And we do want to feed that."

To make up for Jack Bauer/Kiefer Sutherland withdrawal, Fox is airing a special two-hour "24" prequel on Nov. 23. Shot on location in South Africa, Jack will battle an international crisis while America prepares for the inauguration of a new president. It will set the stage for the seventh season, which was delayed one year because of the writers strike.

Developing a revamped 'Idol'

When "American Idol" returns in January for Season Eight, it will still be a singing competition. But changes are coming.

Acknowledging that he's not pleased with the performance of the show this year, Liguori told reporters that he has met with the show's producers and "everyone is really committed and excited" to revamp the show next year.

He added that the writers strike is partly to blame for the show's ratings decline.

"We think the show has somewhat suffered from the post-strike malaise of folks watching less broadcast TV," he said.

Asked whether the cast was also responsible for viewers turning away, Reilly replied:

"Let's put it in some context. . . . It's not like it's in the death throes here," he said. "It's been a phenomenon, but that doesn't mean it doesn't go through some natural aging just like any other show."

Liguori also said that the Wednesday results show will, at least on most weeks, go back to a half-hour.

One thing that won't change: the people sitting at the judges table. "We love Paula," Liguori said, responding to a question about Abdul. "She's coming back."

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maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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