May 05, 2005

TV: playing network programmer (FOX edition)

The current schedule at Fox:

7:00 King of the Hill
7:30 Malcolm in the Middle
8:00 The Simpsons
8:30 Arrested Development
9:00 Family Guy
9:30 American Dad
8:00 Nanny 911
9:00 24
8:00 American Idol
9:00 House
8:00 That 70s Show
8:30 The Simple Life
9:00 American Idol results
9:30 Stacked
8:00 Tru Calling
9:00 The O.C.
8:00 Bernie Mac
8:00 America's Most Wanted
9:00 Cops

We know that Tru Calling won't be back; the trial run of Stacked has not, I think, been impressive enough to earn it a permanent spot in the lineup, and it's hard to imagine that another season can be dredged out of The Simple Life, especially since Paris and Nicole are reportedly no longer on speaking terms.

Generally thought to be on the bubble: Arrested Development, which the public has refused to love as much as the critics want them to, and Bernie Mac, which went through some major scheduling delays this season due to the star's health problems.

Potential trouble spots for Fox include its annual delay in rolling out the new season, due to baseball playoffs. That 70s Show is sure to decline, as both Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace will only be making occasional appearances, and let's face it, ain't no one watching that show for the comic stylings of Mila Kunis. Even the most devoted fans of American Idol -- and I'm among them -- have found the current season lacking in talent and star power compared to previous seasons, and the show needs to find some major talent next time round if it's going to survive. And can 24 find a way to top a season that began with the kidnapping of a Cabinet official and went on to blow Air Force One out of the sky?

On the bright side, Fox is the only network with a stable Saturday night lineup, and its big shows are big enough that even a mild slump would still keep them competitive.

My hunch is that Bernie Mac's ongoing health problems are going to be enough to kill his show; it's hard to keep an audience interested when you don't know how many new episodes you're going to have and when you're going to have them.

And then there's Arrested Development. It seems to me that the biggest problem is scheduling; it's not a good fit with the Sunday cartoons (Malcolm in the Middle is so broadly written and acted that it's practically a live-action cartoon anyway, and it fits in much better). There aren't a lot of places to move it too, though. We'll come back to that in a moment.

But first, a radical proposal. Where is it written that hour-long programs must start on the hour? Imagine the havoc that a network could wreak by running its biggest hit from 8:30 to 9:30, running against whatever hour-long shows the opposition was airing in two different hours. Suppose, for instance, that Fox moved American Idol to 8:30 on Tuesday. Everyone else is running hour-long at 9, so you've increased the chance that your largest audience will stay with you at 9:30, and why not put Arrested Development there?

I'd move House to Fridays at 9; while its success this year certainly owes a lot to its Idol lead-in, I think it's built a big enough audience on its own to survive without Idol (and goodness knows Fox needs to put a proven entity on Friday nights, where it has killed off more new shows than anyone can remember).

The Nanny / 24 combo on Monday is not a very natural fit. I'd make an aggressive move by putting 24 on Sunday nights (bumping Family Guy back to 8:30, and losing the disappointing American Dad, which I don't think survives unless Fox is really interested in keeping Seth McFarlane happy), challenging Desperate Housewives head-on. (I think DH is very likely to fold in its second season as Twin Peaks did.)

That leaves us with a half-hour on Tuesday at 8 for a new sitcom, and an hour each on Monday, Wednesday (either two half-hours, or an hour if we move Idol results to 8:30), Thursday, and Friday. Fill the Monday slot with another hour of the inexpensive reality schlock that Fox loves so dearly; come up with another hip teen soap to go with The O.C. on Thursday; and maybe an irreverent courtroom drama to go with House on Friday. Wednesday? Depends on whether they've got more good comedy pilots or drama pilots.

Tomorrow, we wrap up with WB and UPN.

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