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Reality Sets In For Flagging Fox Network

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It's a TV milestone media buyers really didn't want to see. During the critical November sweeps ratings period, Fox will air 10 reality series and nine scripted shows in prime time—the first time in modern TV history that a broadcast network has scheduled more reality than scripted programs during the regular season. Media buyers are not happy.

Several media buyers panned the strategy—including one who cried, "Egads!" when told of the lineup, noting Fox is taking "a big risk."

But Fox executives last week insisted it is only a two-month plan and that January will herald the arrival of a wealth of new and returning scripted programming in time for the February sweeps. That includes three new dramas, two returning dramas, and both new and returning sitcoms.

Kris Magel, vp, associate network director at Publicis Groupe's Optimedia, also reacted negatively to Fox's plans. "It seems like a lot of reality to have on the schedule," he said. "I would have hoped that Fox would put more scripted programming on. I'm a little worried about the long-term prospects of the network, because successful scripted programming is what assures its long-term success."

Jon Mandel, co-chief executive officer at MediaCom (which is being acquired by WPP Group), noted that "it does seem to show a certain level of creative bankruptcy at the network," adding that his concern also is about the quality of many of the Fox reality shows. "It's not so much that it's reality, but that it's shlocky reality," he said. "But as Phil Donahue once said, 'You slow down to look at a car wreck, don't you.' "

Lyle Schwartz, svp and director of media research at WPP's Mediaedge:cia, said, "It's a … heavy reality-based schedule that is going to test viewers' appetites for reality shows."

The November sweeps will usher in Fox's reality-crazed schedule. Beginning Friday, Nov. 5, Fox will air Totally Outrageous Behavior at 8 p.m., World's Craziest Videos at 8:30 p.m. and Renovate My Family at 9. On Saturdays, Fox will air its usual two half-hours of Cops, plus the hour-long America's Most Wanted. On Sundays, Fox will follow its four returning sitcoms with My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss at 9 p.m. On Mondays, the plan is to run Trading Spouses—which is already on the air—at 8 p.m. and bring back the next installment of The Swan at 9. Tuesdays will be home to new reality show The Rebel Billionaire at 8 p.m. And last but not least, the new Nanny 911 reality show will run Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

Preston Beckman, Fox svp for strategic program planning, said the heavy reliance on reality in the fourth quarter is simply a short-term strategy to avoid last year's unsuccessful rollout of several new scripted series in November following a month of Major League Baseball postseason telecasts. "We're just trying to be realistic and learn from the past few years," he said. "Not to point fingers at other networks, but NBC thought it had a tremendous promotional platform for its new shows with the Olympics this summer, but most of its new shows are not working. We believe we will be better served in holding most of our scripted shows until the first quarter."

Taking exception to Mandel's criticism, Beckman said most of the reality entrants are "advertiser-friendly." He said Trading Spouses and Renovate My Family are similar to ABC shows Wife Swap and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and that The Swan was popular with advertisers last season. Beckman likened Obnoxious Boss to a sitcom. "These shows cover the full spectrum of reality and scripted programs," he said. "Our goal is to get through the fourth quarter with growth over last year and get ready for the return of American Idol in January. I don't think you'll see 10 reality shows still on in January."

Among the scripted programs Fox plans to put on in January or later in the first quarter are the return of dramas 24 and Tru Calling, and new dramas Johnny Zero, Point Pleasant, The Insider and possibly Athens. On the comedy side, new sitcom Related by Family will debut, and Bernie Mac will make its return following the star's recent bout with pneumonia.

"If we put some of these new dramas on in November, and they failed to get an audience, they would be pulled and be replaced with reality anyway," added Beckman. "So we are trying to give them the best chance to succeed. We have a lot of episodes already shot, and we can fine-tune them and decide in what order we run them."

Steve Sternberg, evp, director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group's Magna Global USA, said he believes Fox's strategy could work. "If either My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss or Rebel Billionaire does well, Fox should be OK until January," he said.