Fox Network Goes Out on a Limb Again

TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

The upstart Fox TV network, which pitted "The Simpsons" against "The Cosby Show" last season, shook up the status quo again Tuesday by announcing a 1991-92 schedule that is far out in both its programs and the way they will be scheduled.

Known for its provocative reality and comedy shows, the 5-year-old network fell strangely silent last season after the matchup of "The Simpsons" and "Cosby." Its image as the revolutionary counterpart to ABC, CBS and NBC was damaged among advertisers and defecting viewers.

But Fox's new plans, whether out of design or desperation, are groundbreakers once again--dismissing the idea of the traditional fall season in favor of around-the-year premieres and increasing episode orders from 22 to 30 for such hits as "In Living Color." This would revive a practice of TV in its early days, when shows got 39-week orders.

Bringing back 10 series, Fox will add five new ones before and during the regular fall season--including "Shut Up, Kids," a comedy with Dabney Coleman ("Buffalo Bill") as a con man convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to teach fourth grade. Coleman's series will get the choice program slot between "The Simpsons" and the increasingly popular series "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Another upcoming comedy is "It's All in Your Head," with William Ragsdale as an editor whose emotions come to life as outrageous characters and battle out his daily decisions.

Other new series include:

* "Roc," a comedy about a working-class black family, starring Charles Dutton and fellow cast members from the Tony-nominated show "The Piano Lesson."

* "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures," a comedy based on the movie and dealing with two time-traveling men who "can use their magical telephone booth to visit the past, future or any universe imaginable."

* "The Ultimate Challenge," an hour about "outrageous real-life thrills and sports competitions." The series comes from the creators of "American Gladiators," a syndicated competition show criticized by some as tasteless.

Yanked from the Fox lineup were such series as "Babes," "D.E.A.," "American Chronicles," "Good Grief," "Against the Law," "Haywire," "Yearbook" and "Top of the Heap."

Eschewing the traditional fall launch for its new schedule, Fox said that it "will (begin to) launch programs year-round, starting with original episodes of 'Beverly Hills, 90210' and 'The Ultimate Challenge' in July and the premiere of 'Roc' in August."

"It's All In Your Head" and "Shut Up, Kids" will debut in September, and "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures" arrives in October.

Barry Diller, chairman of Fox Inc., said that his network is trying to break away from the "idiot pack" by offering a premiere of one new show each month and developing new comedies before live audiences--the way that plays try out.

As the networks lose viewers to alternative TV, Diller said, "We need a wall-to-wall rethink of the whole process."

"Every September," said Jamie Kellner, president of Fox Broadcasting, "viewers are assaulted with a hopeless, confusing spasm of new season launches, with the result being viewer dissatisfaction and wasted promotional investments. Fox doesn't plan to subject any of our program assets to this mindless and counterproductive marketing frenzy."

While skeptics may view the Fox lineup as adding to the confusion and being perhaps a shrewd ploy to cover programming deficiencies while trying to unsettle the competition, the network is plowing ahead. Example:

After its sort-of-first season this summer and the fall shows, it then comes back with a third season in January. At that time, Fox will move its Monday movies to Wednesdays. And it will abandon Friday nights altogether--switching shows from that lineup to Mondays.

Those shows will include "America's Most Wanted" and "The Ultimate Challenge." Other programs considered for that night include "Get a Life," which debuted last season, and "Charlie Hoover," a comedy with Tim Matheson as a troubled fellow and screaming comedian Sam Kinison as his alter ego, who tries to pull him out of his rut.

Peter Chernin, president of the Fox Entertainment Group, conceded that the reason the network is moving its series from Fridays to Mondays is that "the available audience on Friday has not proven to be as strong as expected." ABC has dominated the night with sitcoms and "20/20."

Added Chernin: "We also see Wednesday as a viable night for our movies while giving us added promotional benefit for our Thursday lineup." That lineup includes Fox's hottest show, "The Simpsons."

The traditional network ratings season runs from September through mid-April, but Fox said it is going its own way. Said Kellner: "We want to launch our shows in a way that does justice to all of the expense and effort that has gone into them."

Thus, said the network, there will be "a continuous program development season." Said Kellner: "We won't rush a pilot to meet a September air date, but will wait until all its elements are ready."

Emphasizing Fox's belief that it must go its own way in attracting young viewers desirable to advertisers, Chernin said recently: "We believe there are far too many living room-based sitcoms."

Other new series in the works at Fox include:

* "Culture Clash," a comedy with the Latino comedy trio and Cheech Marin, who plays an agent trying to help them crack the big-time.

* "Down the Shore," a comedy in which six young people rent a beach house at the New Jersey shore.

* "Hotel Dicks," a comedy with Morris Day and Jerome Benton as "bumbling, scamming detectives at a quaint urban hotel."

* "The Best of the Worst," a reality show that "glorifies utter badness" in life.

* "True Stories," a dramatized reality series based on real-life events.

Here is Fox's night-by-night lineup for the fall:

Thursday: "The Simpsons," "Shut Up, Kids," "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Friday: "America's Most Wanted," "The Ultimate Challenge."

Saturday: "Totally Hidden Video," "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures," "Cops."

Sunday: "True Colors," "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," "In Living Color," "Roc," "Married . . . With Children," "It's All in Your Head," "The Sunday Comics."

Monday: "Fox Night at the Movies."

No network programming on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Times Staff Writer John Lippman contributed to this article from New York.

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