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Reality intrudes on Fox's turnaround

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 19, 2001


PASADENA, Calif. -- Want to know what a difference 12 months can make in Hollywood?

Consider Fox. This time last year, the network Rupert built was coming off a season of high-profile flops such as Action and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?

But 2001 is a different story, thanks mostly to Malcolm in the Middle, Temptation Island, Dark Angel, Boot Camp and Boston Public, which adds Star Trek: Voyager star Jeri Ryan this fall.

"Over the past year and a half, we've taken a network once characterized by aging hits, a dearth of comedies and an over-reliance on reality shows, and rebuilt it," boasted Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, speaking at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour.

And for those fretting about the impact of reality shows, Grushow offered words of comfort: "Networks that use unscripted (shows) to mask their inability to produce new scripted hits are going to fail. It happened at Fox."

That hasn't kept the network from offering three new reality shows over the next few months, including Murder in Small Town X, a series debuting Tuesday in which real contestants try to find a "murderer" in a small Maine town peopled by actors, Truman Show-style.

Critics were laughing about contestants who seemed to fear that the show's fictional serial killer might actually hurt them. At the end of the first episode, a participant bids a teary farewell to her kids. Producers said the contestants were just remaining "in the moment."

But critics kept asking about the exploitive nature of these shows Wednesday during sessions on Love Cruise (Survivor meets Temptation Island on the high seas), Temptation Island 2 and Small Town X.

"The couples who choose to go on our shows are, to some degree, taking their own relationships for granted," said Mark Wahlberg, host of Temptation Island, uttering a typical line of defense.

The ethics of reality programing isn't the only question facing Fox's fall lineup:

Will the ambitious 24, a Kiefer Sutherland series in which each episode outlines an hour in the characters' lives, leave viewers who miss an episode -- especially the premiere -- in the dark?

Can Undeclared, a moderately witty show about college freshmen, win fans when shows such as Freaks and Geeks failed? Will Buffy-style hit Dark Angel survive a move to little-watched Friday night?

And with more than 10 series in the fall schedule premiering in November or later because of baseball telecasts, will anyone see much of the new shows at all?

Fox executives shrugged off such questions. They preferred to focus on success stories, includingX-Files mastermind Chris Carter agreeing to return this fall and Christopher Titus, whose self-titled show based on his dysfunctional family has become a solid ratings performer.

"I think we've shown over 34 episodes that we can pretty much take any subject and make it funny," said Titus, who has based episodes on true events such as his mother shooting her last husband, his father getting busted for drunken driving on local TV and his brother considering suicide.

"Our home movies were never (just) home movies. . . . They were more like People's Exhibit A," he added, laughing.

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