Hobbled by lagging ratings and forced to pitch around its baseball schedule, Fox Broadcasting Co. plans to break from decades of television tradition by launching new shows in the summer instead of fall.
The move, announced over the weekend by Fox Television Entertainment Chairman Sandy Grushow, is the most aggressive strategy yet as networks struggle to hold on to viewers who are switching to cable and satellite, primarily during summer months when networks air mostly repeats.
Fox, in particular, has faltered in the fall because the network must shelve its shows in October to clear its prime-time schedule for the major league baseball playoffs and the World Series.
Last year, the News Corp.-owned network staggered its fall launch, airing a few new shows for two weeks in September before pulling them off the air in October. Fox then rolled out the remainder of its shows in November, one of the most competitive months in television.
The result: a belly flop. Fox's new shows have been slow to catch on, and two of the network's most heavily promoted new offerings, David E. Kelley's "Girls Club" and Joss Whedon's "Firefly," already have been canceled.
"Clearly, the strategy this past season was not a successful one," Grushow said.
The network's ratings are down by more than 5% this season compared with last year, and the network is in fourth place in the all-important race for 18-to-49-year-old viewers -- the group that advertisers pay the most to reach.
Compared with two years ago, Fox's fall ratings have tumbled by nearly 30% among its core audience of 18-to-34-year-olds, according to advertising buying firm Magna Global USA.
To regain traction, Fox will try to get a six-to-eight-week head start over its broadcast rivals, who plan to stick with tradition and introduce their new prime-time programs in late September.
In scrambling for a better toehold, Fox is drawing on its success last summer with its blockbuster "American Idol: A Search for a Superstar." Fox executives learned that advertisers would pay big money for commercial time during a summer hit -- a departure from years past.
Fox first experimented with summer launches a decade ago with such shows as "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place." Since then, the TV landscape has changed dramatically.
In fact, during the last four years, Grushow said, some of the biggest network moneymakers started as unscripted summer shows: ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," CBS' "Survivor" and Fox's "American Idol."
"One of the lessons that reality television has taught us is that summer is a really good time to launch big franchises," Grushow told television critics and writers at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel on Saturday. "It's a better time than all six networks launching within the same week or two in late September."
These summer sensations have also caught the attention of other network executives, who have watched millions of viewers defect to cable or satellite rather than watch reruns.
NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said last week that more than half of the General Electric Co.-owned network's summer schedule would be new reality-based programs. The network plans to broadcast a slew of such unscripted shows as "Dog Eat Dog," "Race to the Altar," "The Restaurant" and "The Fast and the Furious."
ABC executives also have said their summer slate will be loaded with so-called reality shows.
But Fox's summer strategy goes much further. The network plans not only to air these kinds of shows but also to debut new comedies and dramas in the summer. Later in the fall, after the baseball season is finished, the network plans to begin new episodes of its established and popular shows such as "24" and "Malcolm in the Middle."
"This is going to be done selectively," Grushow said. "And if we can pull it off, then it will sure beat waiting until September."
Fox executives already have told some producers to gear up early and starting hiring writing staffs. "We started out ordering much earlier than we ever had in the past," Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said.
Although Fox executives declined to provide specific dollar figures, they acknowledged that they will have to spend more than usual to order additional pilots and episodes so early in the year.
"It is a significant dollar commitment," Berman said. "It's a risk, I think, worth taking. We are trying to change the way we roll out our programming, and in order to do that, it will require that we spend money."
But with this unique strategy comes a number of uncertainties.
Among other things, Fox's shows could be eclipsed by the success of whatever reality-based shows the other networks unveil, which appeal to the young viewers that make up Fox's core audience. What's more, ratings victories in the summer will not be counted in the traditional 32-week TV season that runs from the third week of September to the end of May. That time frame has long been the measure that networks use when selling their commercial inventory to advertisers.
Further clouding the financial picture, Fox might have trouble recouping the money it spends to produce the more costly scripted dramas and comedies. By beginning programming in the summer, it is narrowing the time slots available to show repeats, which are crucial in helping networks cover the costs of those programs.
Still, Fox is betting that there may be enough advertising dollars up for grabs in the summer to offset any fallout later in the year.
Last fall, ABC's decision to unveil its fall season one week early paid off with shows such as "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" catching on with viewers before shows on the other networks left the starting gate.
Grushow said that slight edge, along with the monthlong hiatus on Fox for baseball, gave ABC an advantage over Fox's "That '70s Show," which also aired on Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
Ratings for "That '70s Show" are down by more than 10% among adults 18 to 49, according to Magna Global. The agency also noted in a report this month that ratings for Fox's Monday night drama, "Boston Public," are down more than 20% in the 18-to-49-year-old category, hurt primarily by NBC's unscripted "Fear Factor."
Meanwhile, ratings for Fox's critically acclaimed Tuesday night drama "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland, are up 16% among adults 18 to 49 even though "24" debuted after the World Series.
Grushow said the network needed more numbers like those, and that it was willing to gamble with a strategy that swings for the fences.
"This network is in a state of transition. It's rebuilding," he said. "To put new shows on for two weeks and then take them off for four weeks for baseball is not a particularly effective launch strategy."