A More Grown-Up Look for Fox : Television: With new entertainment president John Matoian and a powerful distribution system, the fourth network plans to expand its audience.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Remember the formative years of the Fox network, when each new fall season brought such distinguished programs as "Babes," a 1991 sitcom about three obese sisters in a cramped apartment whose "self-esteem outweighs the problems they encounter"?

And then there was 1992's "Woops!," featuring the six slap-happy survivors of a fateful trip, namely a planetary nuclear holocaust.

Those were the days when, in order to survive against its monolithic competition--ABC, NBC and CBS--the small Fox network and its ragtag lineup of VHF and weak UHF station affiliates had to aggressively counter-program, trading in a mass audience to target a very young one.

All that will change this fall.

After nine years in prime time, the smart-alecky Fox will finally grow up--or at least try. In a sense, Fox can't afford not to. After spending $1.6 billion for the rights to broadcast NFL games last season and in the midst of stealing 19 station affiliates from the bigger networks, Fox finally has a powerful distribution system.

Last September, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox parent News Corp., personally handpicked former high school English teacher John Matoian as the new entertainment president to cast a wider net for viewers. Instead of being satisfied with viewers under 35, Murdoch wanted the network to target the popular 18-to-49-year-old demographic, which advertisers pay a premium to reach.

Matoian, 46, who last headed the family film division of 20th Century Fox's film studio, masterminded a fall schedule with eight new shows, most of them comedies about single young adults or young married couples, reflecting a general trend at all four networks. Fox will spend $42 million this summer to promote the new schedule--fully 25% more than ever before. A huge image campaign involving billboards, buses, wild postings, radio, television and national publications begins July 15.

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"There was a time when growing meant going from three to four to five to six to seven nights a week of programming, and now growing means something else," Matoian said. "It means we have seven nights established, now let's grow the core and grow beyond the core."

Even though Fox has found success with such popular dramas as "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place," Matoian ordered a heavy slate of sitcoms because they do better in repeats than dramas.

A sampling: In "Ned and Stacey," Thomas Haden Church ("Wings") and Deborah Messing ("NYPD Blue") enter into a marriage of convenience despite their differences. Jon Cryer ("Pretty in Pink") must put up with his best friend getting married in "Partners." In "Misery Loves Company," single guy Rick Rossovich ("Roxanne") is reluctant to get married because of what marriage has done to his buddies.

Advertisers, at least, already like what they've seen. Fox actually received higher ratings than CBS among adults 18 to 49 last season, and advertisers are looking for that trend to continue. They have bought a record $1 billion worth of commercial time on Fox for next season. By way of comparison, they spent a reported $1.3 billion on CBS, but CBS programs 22 hours of prime time a week to Fox's 15. As the former head of movies and miniseries for CBS, Matoian chuckles when asked how he felt about Fox while working at the more stately CBS less than two years ago.

"In all honesty, it's not a network I ever, ever watched," he said, "possibly because I was out of the demographic. But you know, my perception is that it was always the counter-programmer. At CBS, it was never a place I needed to personally worry about competing with because we were at such opposite ends of the spectrum. I always felt that it was a brilliant, narrow, niche network, and that was all."

Although Matoian wants to increase Fox's core audience, he knows there are limits. The NFL was supposed to serve as a promotional platform, driving viewers into Fox's weekly schedule. But after football coverage ended on Fox last season, viewers tuned out in droves rather than stay tuned to watch the cheeky espionage series "Fortune Hunter," which Fox had in the postgame time slot. CBS had used its post-football slot to turn "60 Minutes" into one of the most popular programs in TV history.

This fall after NFL games, Fox will try to entice viewers to stay with a lavish science-fiction series called "Space: Above and Beyond," from two executive producers of the network's hit "The X-Files." Matoian is realistic about "Space's" prospects, however, pointing out that older men comprise one of the NFL's biggest audiences.

Fox, Matoian said, "is not a place that has age 50-plus viewership at all. It's not likely to ever have it. One thing a lot of people criticized us for, particularly on Sunday nights, is saying you're handed a football lead-in that you guys have literally fumbled week in and week out. And in truth, we're going to fumble a good portion of that crowd no matter what, because there's a portion of that audience which is 55-plus males, who we will probably never capitalize on."

Matoian has special interest in fixing Fox's low-rated movie night on Tuesdays, which he admits to being "embarrassed" by since he arrived. For the first time in its history, Fox has invested in a high-profile slate of theatrical motion pictures, ranging from "In the Line of Fire" to "Cliffhanger" to "Bram Stoker's Dracula."

In original productions, Matoian wants to avoid woman-in-jeopardy TV movies by finding projects that feel like feature films. One of his first official moves at Fox was to strike up a deal with Hallmark Entertainment, which has a cachet with top talent. In other deals, Matoian turned to film director John Landis to produce a TV movie spinoff of "The Munsters," and he has ordered a new "Alien Nation" and a movie spinoff of the British science-fiction series "Dr. Who."

"One thing I know a little bit about from my history and success at CBS was that you have to market movies," Matoian said. He has allocated for the first time a separate marketing budget to promote Fox's movie night. "With a theatrical motion picture, it's most important what people say when they leave the theater. TV movies are all about getting people there to begin with."

Matoian has also signed off on "Mad TV," a TV version of Mad magazine, to compete once a week against NBC's ailing "Saturday Night Live." In addition to comedy sketches, "Mad TV" will feature bits from the juvenile humor magazine, such as an animated Spy vs. Spy and movie-ad parodies. Next fall, Matoian plans to introduce a late-night show during the week to compete with Jay Leno and David Letterman.

Despite the slight graying of Fox, the network has a long way to go in cleaning up its image, with the critically ravaged "Married . . . With Children" still going strong. In an effort to strip Fox of its foreign ownership, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People recently claimed that it "represents the worst traditions of American broadcasting." Rather than serve the public interest, Fox has "brought the greatest debasement of taste, character, quality and decency in television history," the NAACP said.

"I think that Fox has a stigma from the early days," Matoian said. "It is, in many ways, an unfair stigma, and in some ways probably a legitimate complaint. But you know, when you're starting out--and I wasn't here--you need to do something that makes a little noise and draws a little attention and provides an audience with what they're not getting.

"This place is evolving now in a very different way. What happened--and where the legitimate complaints came in--is that Fox got the notion that being wild and daring and brash and over the edge was enough, in and of itself. That's where the stumbling block came. Shows that went on the schedule that were sexy because they could be sexy, and had no other reason for being, failed and stigmatized this place, and appropriately so."

Does that mean no more ribald sitcoms from Fox? Not entirely. Fox has a fall sitcom called "The Crew," whose characters are described as "young and sexy [who] travel free to exotic locales, and they work only 15 hours a month."

Still, Matoian maintained: "There's a conscious effort on our part to give these things a better reason to be on the air than to just fulfill a brand identity." One thing he learned from teaching high school was "never underestimate the audience. I mean, what I learned with kids is to always make them go higher, and they'll go. So much of what's wrong with the education system and television tends to deny the intelligence of the audience."

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