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Fox schedule offers 3-tiered confusion

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic
Published May 21, 2004

NEW YORK - Remember all those summers you complained about the reruns filling network television?

Now the Fox network has responded with a cure that may be worse than the problem, announcing a schedule - actually, three schedules - aimed at avoiding reruns through the year.

But it's so confusing, viewers may give up before figuring out what's airing when.

Taking the stage at the cavernous City Center, Fox executives Thursday revealed their ambitious scheduling plan to advertisers. But because Fox spends much of October airing the baseball playoffs and the World Series, their 52-week plan rolls out in three phases - June to October, November to January and January to June 2005.

In this plan, for example, the Bernie Mac Show airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays from June to October, 9 p.m. Wednesdays from November to January and 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays from January to June 2005.

Returning hit The O.C. won't come back until November, paired with low-rated Tru Calling on Thursdays in a bid to take on NBC's Friends-less Must See TV lineup. Real-time hit 24 doesn't return until January, removed from its comfy, post-American Idol time slot to air after what looks to be a loser nighttime soap opera, Athens.

First up, Fox will present six new series in June: the Andy Richter comedy Quintuplets; the legal drama The Jury; Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie's adventures in Hernando and Pasco counties in The Simple Life 2; a sitcom starring rappers Method Man and Redman in Method and Red; Hawaii-based nighttime soap opera North Shore; and another reality show from Survivor creator Mark Burnett, The Casino, tracing efforts to revive an aging Vegas casino.

By November, the network will add a second run of The Swan, a boxing reality show dubbed the Next Great Champ, an Apprentice in the courts reality show called The Partner, medical drama House and an Apprentice-meets-Amazing Race reality show starring Virgin Airlines founder Sir Richard Branson, The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best.

It only gets more confusing in January, when Fox adds five more new series, including a sketch comedy show hosted by ex-Frasier star Kelsey Grammer.

"NBC tried to kill my career, and I wouldn't let them," said Grammer to the crowd Thursday, as if appearing in a cheesy sketch comedy show after a distinguished 20-year run on Frasier and Cheers wouldn't do the same.

A serious level of wishful thinking seems to pervade Fox's schedule, which assumes dubious efforts such as Quintuplets and Method and Red can survive from June to January. Experienced media buyers wondered what Fox will do if ratings force early cancellation of some shows.

Too many of Fox's new series look like uninspired ripoffs of other hits, from North Shore's older O.C. vibe to the two Apprentice knockoffs and a boxing reality show that seems awfully similar to NBC's fall show The Contender.

When the biggest applause from media buyers is for the survival of low-rated comedy Arrested Development and the resurrection of the cartoon Family Guy, you know there's a problem.

Still, Fox pulled out the stops Thursday, arranging a performance, by satellite, from American Idol alums Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard in New York, joined by current finalists Diana DeGarmo and Fantasia Barrino in Los Angeles.

Oh, and Sir Richard swung into the City Center in a huge parachute, befitting his daredevil reputation.

By contrast, UPN on Thursday announced a schedule of new shows and renewals that made more sense than anything the network has offered in years.

Realizing that its black-centered shows have rescued Monday and Tuesday nights, UPN extended the franchise to Wednesdays with Kevin Hill, a new drama starring Ally McBeal alum Taye Diggs as a hotshot lawyer forced to raise his cousin's daughter. A new comedy starring two stars from Showtime's Soul Food, Second Time Around, will fill a space on Mondays left by the end of The Parkers.

Fear not Trekkies: The network didn't cancel ailing sci-fi drama Star Trek: Enterprise, just moved it to Fridays where it likely will disappear without a trace.

With all Fox's boasts that it has reinvented the TV industry, it just might be UPN that stages the more successful revolution this fall, built on carefully focused shows and a growing understanding of what its audience (and advertisers) wants. Imagine that.

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