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A hitch in Fox's stagger plan

When Fox programmers decided to start their season with a staggered launch, they didn't expect to be rolling out the majority of their new and returning shows during November sweeps.

"It's been tough waiting in the wings," says Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman. "This was not our intent."

Major League Baseball's postseason was pushed back a week in the wake of Sept. 11, and Fox, in the first year of a six-year deal to carry all of baseball's postseason, was forced to fall back, too. Most of the network's prime time schedule during October and the first week of this month was occupied by playoff and World Series games. As a result, most of Fox's Tuesday-, Wednesday-, Thursday- and Sunday-night lineup gets under way this month.

The monkey wrench in Fox's plan came as network programmers were getting ready to resume where they had left off last season: just three-tenths of a rating point behind NBC in adults 18-49.

With the most anticipated new show of the season in 24, a second installment of Temptation Island, and a crop of young comedies starting to show some legs, the plan was to allow shows to get started outside the fall onslaught and to receive invaluable promotion during the playoffs. Because of the delays, however, the majority of Fox's series are now debuting against rival networks' strong November sweeps efforts.

"We certainly found the staggered launch to be a good strategy last year. This one has been stretched more than our original plan due to events of the day, and it has obviously put us at somewhat of a disadvantage," says Berman. "But we are getting in the game now, and we just have to deal with what we have."

Last week, Fox's Monday drama duo of Boston Public
and Ally McBeal
started the 2001-02 campaign on a strong note, winning the night in adults 18-49. The net's Tuesday-night pairing of comedies That '70s Show
and freshman Undeclared
has fared well in the ratings, while new Friday-night drama Pasadena
and reality series Love Cruise
have struggled.

Action series 24
debuts Nov. 6, TemptationIsland 2
on Nov. 7, the full Sunday-night roster including The X-Files
on Nov. 11, and critically acclaimed comedy The Bernie Mac Show
on Nov. 14.

"I think the core schedule at Fox is still pretty solid," says media buyer Tom DeCabia, of Advanswers PHD. "They came awfully close to catching NBC last year, and I think they have a great shot this year. But the jury is still out on their new shows."

Fox averaged a 4.5 rating/12 share in adults 18-49 last season, topping all rival networks except NBC, which scored a 4.8/13 in the demo, according to Nielsen Media Research. The year before, Fox finished fourth in the category and was floundering.

Berman, who started at Fox after the network's rough 1999-2000 season, notes: "We're looking to stay in the game, improve our performance and put on shows of high quality. If we ... come near NBC again, that will be icing on the cake."

While Fox's schedule is strong from Saturday through Tuesday, the network's Wednesday-Friday lineup is still in flux. Wednesday night opens with sitcom repeats, for which Fox programmers took a lot of flak when they announced their lineup last May, and Berman says Wednesdays will be "a work in progress throughout the year." Thursday has Temptation Island 2
for the short term, and Friday's combination of Dark Angel
and Pasadena
is not clicking. Of Friday's sluggish ratings, Berman says,

"We are not overly pleased with those numbers ... but we are trying to stay committed to the material at this point."

For midseason, Fox has three comedies in production, including a '70s Show
follow-up titled That '80s Show
and Ally McBeal's
successor, due in March, drama Emma Brody.