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At Fox, a Lot of Baseball, No New Hits

Times Staff Writer

Fox’s signature new show, “Girls Club,” opens to the strains of the pop song “Under Pressure.” It could be the theme song for the entire network.

Fox is trying to rebound from last year’s prime-time season, when mainstays “Ally McBeal” and “The X-Files” lost their appeal, sending ratings among 18- to 49-year-old viewers down 11%. The network’s top returning shows -- “Boston Public,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Bernie Mac Show” and “24" -- are strong but not strong enough to sustain Fox without new hits, according to network executives and media analysts.

“Fox lives on buzz,” said Jon Mandel, who represents some of the biggest advertisers on television as co-chief executive of Mediacom Inc. “And nothing this season looks buzzy.”

New shows constitute 45% of Fox’s current fall schedule, a greater percentage than any other network, including beleaguered Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC. But even libidinous legal associates failed to fetch a crowd when “Girls Club” premiered Monday night, making it Fox’s second heavily hyped disappointment after its Friday night science-fiction western “Firefly.”

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“It’s quite clear we are going to have a lot of program failures,” said Peter Chernin, president of News Corp., which owns Fox. “The question is where are the successes?”

So far they are hard to find because of Fox’s $2.5-billion contract with Major League Baseball. Ratings for the first four games of the all-California World Series on Fox have been dismal. Wednesday’s contest between the Anaheim Angels and the San Francisco Giants drew 22% fewer viewers than last year’s fourth game. Some analysts predict that Fox may be forced to give advertisers free spots to make up for the shortfall.

“No question. It is extremely challenging to try to rebuild a network,” said Fox Television Chairman Sandy Grushow, adding that the network’s commitment to air baseball’s post-season adds to the difficulty of attracting viewers by temporarily knocking off its new shows. “We’re huffing and puffing all summer to promote shows that air for two weeks and then are preempted by four weeks of baseball.”

Grushow and the network’s head of entertainment programming, Gail Berman, say no one knows how the network may rebound until at least three weeks after the World Series ends. They say they are optimistic that the network’s midseason shows, including an installment of the summer sensation “American Idol,” could lift Fox substantially.

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“After we are back up and running, we’ll make the tough choices on the shows,” Berman said.

Network sources already are speculating that “Girls Club” won’t last through Thanksgiving.

Berman is seen as the Fox executive toting the network repair kit. Responsible for developing Fox’s lineup this season, her second at the network, Berman is credited with cultivating the critically acclaimed “24.”

“Last year, no question, we just wanted to keep our heads above water,” Berman said. “I believe in the shows we have this year. Whether it is a seminal year, that is for others to decide.”

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By and large, Berman’s new shows are big, flashy -- and slow to take off. She hired David E. Kelley, one of television’s highest-priced producers, to create “Girls Club” as a replacement show for “Ally McBeal.” She authorized producer Joss Wheedon, whose “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” effectively tapped into teen angst, to spend $10 million to create the two-hour pilot for “Firefly,” sources said.

Two other one-hour dramas are doing better but are far from the best in their time slots. One, “Fastlane,” is a “Miami Vice"-style cop show created by film director McG (“Charlie’s Angels”). The other, “John Doe,” is an eerie drama with a stylish, if unknown, star. The series reflects Berman’s push to cut costs while producing expensive-looking programs; it is being shot in Canada, where production costs are lower.

The network also saves money on its evergreen shows, “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted,” which continue to perform well at modest expense.

Berman will be relying on “American Idol” to fill in the schedule gaps in January. “For the first time in a long time, this summer [with ‘American Idol’] we had a lot of young women [viewers],” Berman said. In an emergency, she said she can turn to other non-scripted shows such as “30 Seconds to Fame” and new versions of “Bachelorettes in Alaska,” “Temptation Island” and “Celebrity Boxing.”

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An unlikely network executive, Berman, 45, spent most of her career on the other side of the table, making shows. Before joining Fox in 2000, she was an executive producer on “Buffy” and its spinoff “Angel.” As president of Regency Television, she was responsible for “Malcolm in the Middle.” Regency also produces Fox’s “Bernie Mac” and “John Doe.”

Regency founder Arnon Milchan said Berman’s model for building Regency was to do the opposite of whatever former agent Michael Ovitz was doing at Artists Television Group. While Ovitz was breaking the bank by paying top dollar for big names, Milchan said, Berman “went to the creative people we could afford.”

Berman takes chances. Last season, off-color comic “Bernie Mac” worked. “Greg the Bunny” and “The Tick” didn’t. This season the keeper is “Cedric the Entertainer Presents,” a sketch comedy half-hour with June Taylor-style dancers.

“Our show was a tough sell,” Cedric the Entertainer (born Cedric Kyles) said in a recent interview on the set of his show.

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“All of the networks were interested in me doing a sit-com with a family,” he said, adding he wanted to do a sketch comedy and only Fox has succeeded in that area, in prime time, with such shows as “In Living Color.” “Gail is a fan of that era of television -- Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason. With the network’s young demo and the sports programming, we thought I could find my audience.”

Among those who will be watching Fox closely are Wall Street analysts.

“The network is the key driver of News Corp.,” said John Tinker, managing director of Blaylock & Partners, who noted that Fox’s large group of television stations is the company’s biggest single source of profit. “The stock is going to languish until they fix the network.”

On the upside, Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen said this year’s surge in television advertising sales is filling the coffers at the network and the company’s 35 television stations.

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“The loss at the network will be cut in half this year,” Reif Cohen said. Fox network lost $263 million last year, when low ratings were compounded by a depressed advertising market.

Advertisers caution, however, that the network remains troubled.

“Fox, to some degree, has an identity crisis,” said Steve Sternberg, a TV analyst with Magna Global, a division of advertising behemoth Interpublic. “There used to be something called the Fox audience. But it lost its hits, got stuck with baseball and its new shows aren’t working. So what is the Fox audience?”


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