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Fox Loses Some of Its Sheen

No network came into the new TV season with more swagger and flair than Fox.

It was the riverboat gambler in a nervous business. It was, fittingly, the Bart Simpson network, thumbing its nose at the way things were supposed to be done.

Fox’s “The Simpsons” took on “The Cosby Show.” The network daringly shook up its entire lineup and expanded from three nights a week to five.

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Cocky young Fox Broadcasting, just four years old, was shooting the works. And. . . .

Oops.

After a heady 1989-90 season behind “The Simpsons” and “Married . . . With Children,” it is suddenly and soberingly the morning after for Fox.

The big schedule shake-up--dumping such known quantities as “21 Jump Street” and “Alien Nation"--fizzled. New series that were counted on--like “Babes,” about three fat and funny sisters--just didn’t deliver.

As far back as October, Fox was faced with giving free commercial time to sponsors for failing to meet ratings projections.

“They haven’t had a breakout hit” this season, says media analyst Paul Bricault of Paul Kagan Associates.

None of the networks had a real breakout hit this fall. “It’s been a bad season for all of them,” adds Bricault.

But after last season’s momentum and sudden impact with “The Simpsons,” “Married . . . With Children” and “In Living Color,” Fox was hot.

Most important, Fox’s edgy, insouciant attitude and shows--and its freewheeling corporate style--had finally established the network’s image.

Behind its determined chairman, Barry Diller, who virtually willed Fox into existence and epitomized its independent tone, the new network stood apart. It was ebullient, effusive, wholly different from conservative, old-line CBS, NBC and ABC.

These days, however, Fox seems uncharacteristically low-key, perhaps taking stock of itself and its future after falling on its face this fall.

Last week, for instance, the seven bottom-ranked shows in the national TV ratings all belonged to Fox: “Cops,” “Totally Hidden Video,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Comic Strip Live,” “Haywire,” “Against the Law” and “American Chronicles.”

Thirteen of the 19 lowest-rated series were on Fox.

In an increasingly soft advertising market, Fox’s season-to-date ratings average, as of late this week, was 6.2, well below the 7 rating it reportedly pledged to sponsors. (Each rating point represents 931,000 homes.)

It’s true that ABC, CBS and NBC usually come on strong as the new season opens in September and October, but their weakness this fall was a major opportunity muffed by Fox.

Fox has thrived on dramatic moves--witness its stunning announcement earlier this year that “The Simpsons” would challenge “Cosby” head-on. The worst thing Fox could do now, while it’s back on its heels, is turn conservative--and thus blow its image.

“They may be getting more conservative,” says Bricault. “When you’re the underdog, you can take more chances. You can throw a show like ‘Married . . . With Children’ into prime time, or an animated series like ‘The Simpsons.’ ”

But Bricault points out that Fox did try to push some limits again this fall with the new sitcom “True Colors,” about an interracial marriage, and also with the irreverent “Babes.”

“True Colors” ranked 80th among 93 programs last week. “Babes” was 82nd. Both were reruns, but neither has been setting the world afire.

None of its failures this season has the saving glamour and publicity value that went with Joan Rivers’ dismissal from Fox as the host of its late-night series. The controversial split with Rivers was almost worth it to Fox in terms of the attention it brought the new network.

Unless Fox manages to come up with another smash replacement series like “The Simpsons"--which was a mid-season entry--the network’s fall failure will surely delay its plans to expand to seven nights a week.

In fact, it’s not even up to the five nights a week it announced for this fall. The planned, weekly Monday movies have been delayed until at least later this season. That means Fox is still really a four-night network.

And it had more impact in the past with fewer nights. Consider some of the now-departed series that were on its schedule a year ago when it was still a Saturday-Sunday-Monday service: “The Tracey Ullman Show,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” “21 Jump Street,” “Booker” and “Alien Nation.”

Fox made a bad judgment this season by switching series programming from Mondays to Fridays, when there’s a much smaller TV audience.

Its biggest gamble, of course, was moving the “The Simpsons” to Thursdays--and breaking up a blockbuster Sunday lineup that had quickly developed as the cartoon series teamed with “Married . . . With Children” and “In Living Color.”

Fox had never had such success before. But on Thursdays, while “The Simpsons” is more than holding its own against NBC’s “The Cosby Show,” it is still not averaging the 27% audience share that sponsors were said to have been guaranteed. More important, it has failed to be a potent lead-in for “Babes"--or to build the night of hits that Fox had hoped for.

Furthermore, Fox’s former Sunday stronghold has weakened. New series such as “True Colors,” “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose,” “Get a Life” and “Good Grief” simply haven’t given much support to “Married . . . With Children” and “In Living Color.”

At the moment, Fox has a few hits and little else. It is in danger of losing its strong image--a kind of nuts-to-you attitude of fun and arrogance--and becoming just another unexciting network, which would defeat its entire purpose for existing.

Being talked about is lifeblood for Fox. The littlest network is at a crossroads.


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