Oops!…Fox Did It Again

Network bolsters schedule with Britney, Demi and Mindy

It was perhaps the worst kept secret in the business, but when Simon Cowell on Monday afternoon introduced Britney Spears as one of The X Factor’s new celebrity judges, the crowd at the Beacon Theater let out quite a whoop, y’all.

“This year, we are going to seriously kick butt,” Cowell told the crowd of media buyers and advertisers assembled for Fox’s 2012-13 upfront presentation. “I promise you…we are going to make this the best series we’ve ever made.”

In what marked their first promotional appearance on behalf of The X Factor, Spears and fellow Fox newcomer/former Disney princess Demi Lovato greeted the audience alongside Cowell and X Factor veteran L.A. Reid. “I am so excited about this whole experience,” Spears said. “It’s going to be so much fun and so different from anything I’ve ever done. I’m ready to find the true star.”

Lovato chimed in, telling clients that she is “totally stoked” to work with the rest of The X Factor cast.

Cowell stopped short of making any guarantees about The X Factor’s ratings prowess—before the show bowed last fall, the acerbic Brit boasted that anything shy of 20 million viewers per episode would be “a disappointment”—but curiosity seekers and fans of Spears and Lovato should provide a significant early lift.

If The X Factor fell short of Cowell’s boosterish projections, Season 1 was hardly a bust. The premiere cycle averaged 11.4 million viewers and a 3.8 in the demo, making it the eighth highest-rated series on the tube. 

The two new stars replace original panelists Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger, who were relieved of their duties shortly after Season 1 wrapped.

As was the case in its inaugural season, Factor will air as a two-hour competition show (Wednesdays) and a one-hour results program (Thursdays). The latter installment will lead into Season 4 of Glee, which moves over from its Tuesday 8 p.m. slot. Glee will also reap the benefit of an American Idol lead-in after Cowell and Co. close out the season in late December.

Like everyone else in the broadcast space, Fox is getting down to funny business. Encouraged by the success of the live-action ensemble comedy New Girl, Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly has ordered a two-hour Tuesday night comedy block. Raising Hope will anchor the night, leading into the new strip Ben and Kate (formerly known as Ben Fox Is My Manny). At 9 p.m., Season 2 of New Girl will set the table for Mindy Kaling’s new series, The Mindy Project.

Ben and Kate is the sort of off-kilter family comedy with which Fox has had success in the past (see also: Malcolm in the Middle, Raising Hope). Kaling’s show may be the most anticipated of the new season, given the writer/actress’ social media bona fides (1.73 million Twitter followers and counting) and her legacy as the originator of Kelly Kapoor on The Office. According to Networked Insights, people are also abuzz about upcoming Mindy Project guest stars Bill Hader and Ed Helms.

On the drama front, the renewed Kiefer Sutherland series Touch moves from Thursday to Friday night, where it will lead into the final 13-episode run of Fringe. After a sneak preview on Jan. 25 delivered 12 million viewers and a 3.9 rating, Touch has fallen sharply, averaging 6.84 million viewers and a 1.9 rating last Thursday.

One new drama appears on Fox’s fall roster; the Jordana Spiro thriller The Mob Doctor will lead out of Season 8 of Bones. The Kevin Bacon serial killer drama The Following bows in midseason.

Earlier this morning, Fox Networks Group chairman Peter Rice told reporters that he was no fan of Dish Network’s new Auto Hop feature, a new wrinkle that essentially functions as commercial-avoidance software. Rather than fast-forward through the spots (zipping, in old VHS parlance), Auto Hop zaps them out of existence altogether. Obviously, the technology only works in playback mode, but it so effectively eliminates commercials that it’s practically a middle finger thrust in the face of the entire broadcast model.

Rice said Fox is “evaluating” legal action that might put a stop to Dish Net’s disruptive service. ReplayTV, a similar offering launched in the early days of TiVo, was legislated out of existence in 2001 after ABC, CBS and NBC teamed up to bring a lawsuit against its parent company. 

Rice isn’t the only broadcast exec who’s fuming over the threat of Auto Hop; on Sunday, NBC broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert characterized the service as an attack on the network TV ecosystem and an “insult to our joint investment in programming.”

At one point during the Fox upfront presentation, Rice pointed out that 20 percent of the New Girl audience is derived from nonlinear viewing, i.e., on-demand or online. But among the core group of viewers that still watch live broadcast TV, Fox remains the top source for original series content.

Per Nielsen, Fox is about to wrap up its eighth consecutive season as the No. 1 network among the all-important 18-to-49 demo. The network is currently averaging a 3.2 rating in prime time, while the nearest runner-up, CBS, is drawing a 3.0.