Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reflections On The Midseason - FOX

(I had intended to get this series of reflections out quickly. Unfortunately I've been feeling really really tire over the past little while. So tired in fact that I've been literally taking naps before going to bed. Anyway I may not get another instalment of this series out until the new year.)

With all five of the American broadcast networks having announced their midseason schedules I thought it was a pretty good opportunity to look at the shows that are been replaced and the shows that replacing them and at the general successes and failures of the networks.

Cancelled: Do Not Disturb, 'Til Death (on hiatus)

Planned Hiatus: Prison Break, Don't Forget The Lyrics, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Episodes Ordered:
Fringe (full 22 episode order), Prison Break (2 episodes)

House, Bones, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

24, American Idol, Hell's Kitchen, Hole In The Wall

New Shows: Lie To Me, Dollhouse,

Lie To Me sounds a lot like The Mentalist, at least based on the description in Wikipedia: "Main character Dr. Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) detects deception by observing body language, and uses this talent to assist law enforcement with the help of his group of researchers and psychologists." No doubt this won't be as clear cut a copy as this makes it sound. Still it sounds like a "safe" series, and its location in the time slot following the Wednesday episode of American Idol should make it fairly safe. Debuts January 21, 2009.

Dollhouse is the latest series that Joss Whedon is doing for FOX. Debuts February 13, 2009. The series focuses on a service that provides people – known as "Dolls" who can be given any personality you like and do any job that you want. Once they finish their jobs their minds are wiped and they're sent to a dormitory/lab known as "The Dollhouse." The series focuses on one "Doll" played by Eliza Dushku who is beginning to overcome the mindwipes and is developing self-awareness. Debuts February 13, 2009

Commentary: FOX has what might be described as the most schizophrenic (in popular if totally incorrect definition of the term – split personality) of all the networks. While most networks might debut new series at the midseason break, most tend to try to keep a consistent schedule from the end of September to the end of May. And when it comes to a very successful reality format, the networks try to get at least two cycles in during that period. Most importantly most networks don't break the rule that says that you don't play musical chairs with a show's time slot when the show is performing successfully. Not FOX. I swear that somewhere in the headquarters at FOX an executive once said, "Rules? We don't need no steenkeeng rules!"

I mean take a look at the shows that they're moving around the schedule. In its last original episode (December 9th) House finished second in total viewers (13.90 million) and first in the 18-49 demographic (5.6/15). In its last original episode (November 26th), Bones finished first in both total households and the demographic (9.43 million, 2.5/8). The only weak show of the three that are being moved around is Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which was fourth in its time slot in total viewers and in the demographic (5.3 million, 1.9). The two game shows that are going on a "planned hiatus" (the only term that I can think of that fits what FOX is doing), Don't Forget The Lyrics and Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? are both doing relatively well in the ratings considering that they're on Friday nights after all, finishing second in total households in their most recent airings and in the demographic (the latter numbers – 1.3/4 for Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? and 1.4/5 for Don't Forget The Lyrics – look weak in comparison to most nights but are strong for a Friday). Conventional wisdom, the "rules" if you will, says that you keep these shows in the line-up. In other words, don't mess with success.

And then there's 24 and American Idol. I mean let's face it, what network decides to bring back a full 24 hour season of a proven hit series in February. Well okay there's ABC and Lost but that only happened after a ratings scare in the third season, but this will be the fourth season of 24 to debut in January. The aim is to run the entire series without interruption. As for American Idol, Fox treats it differently from just about any other successful returning reality series by airing only one cycle of the show per year. And, the network has been doing that since the very beginning. By comparison CBS will have aired 18 cycles of Survivor in about the same amount of time that FOX aired eight cycles of American Idol. While there is probably a sound logistical explanation for this in terms of organizing venues for auditions and just attracting talent, there is something to be said for this approach in terms of keeping the concept relatively fresh and not wearing out its welcome. While the show no longer absolutely dominates the timeslots that it airs in the way it did when it first showed up when it effectively killed The West Wing and so scared CBS that they pushed the third season of The Amazing Race into the summer, the show still regularly wins its time slot handily. What the situation would be if they followed accepted wisdom and ran the show twice a year is certainly something to ponder.

The most recent example of FOX breaking the rules is their experiment with "remote free TV." In a world where networks seem determined to cram as many commercials into an hour as the law will allow, FOX has tried an experiment with fewer commercials per hour in two of their shows, Fringe and the upcoming Dollhouse. Costs are made up by charging a premium rate for the commercials that are broadcast, but presenting them in such a way – 60 and 90 second breaks in most cases – that people are less tempted to either fast forward through the commercials or use them as an opportunity to channel surf. I suppose the jury is still out on "remote free TV;" Fringe at least seems to be successful in terms of getting eyeballs in front of the set – 8.69 million viewers in its most recent original episode (3rd in timeslot against The Mentalist and the finale of the latest cycle of Biggest Loser) and a 3.7/9 in the 18-49 demographic. To be sure it lost viewers out of House (leading Marc Berman to describe it as "overrated") but given the nature of the series it's still a good performance as what is essentially a quirky science fiction show with light dash of police procedural. And while I don't believe that the "remote free TV" concept is a primary reason – or even a secondary – reason for what success the show has had, it is a comforting stand down from the incessant expansion of commercial time into actual story (not to mention time for an actual theme song). It's something that people always say they want but is it something that they'll actually support now that they get it.

FOX has had a promising but less than stellar first half of the season. The loss of the two Wednesday sitcoms left the network without a live action comedy half hour. In truth it sometimes seems as if the people producing comedies for FOX are reaching for the lowest common denominator in their shows at a time when other networks are aiming a little higher in terms of concept and quality of humour (the return of According To Jim notwithstanding). A show like Do Not Disturb had the potential to be so much better if the producers had gone with a different approach to the situation and to the humour. But that, it seems, isn't the "FOX way."

This was the visible problem. The less obvious problem was the ratings of some of their other shows. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Prison Break were consistently fourth in their time slots at between 5.5 million and 6 million viewers and weakness in the 18-49 demographic. And yet these two shows represent one aspect that seems to be new to FOX either since the Writers Strike or since the arrival of Kevin Reilly as head of programming at the network; an attitude of patience and allowing a show time to either find its audience or prove that it is a failure. In the case of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles in particular, the show will be getting a full second season even if it is relocated to Friday night. Another problem that FOX doesn't talk too much about is the situation on Thursday nights. The original plan appears to have been to run the Japanese style game show Hole In The Wall in the first hour to be followed with an episode of the Gordon Ramsay series Kitchen Nightmares. However Hole In The Wall turned into a hole in the ratings and was quickly ushered out of the time slot to be replaced by a second repeat episode of Kitchen Nightmares. And yet Hole In The Wall will return to the FOX line-up once the NFL season ends.

So what are FOX's prospects for the remainder of the season? The combination of House and 24 should be very strong for FOX on Monday nights which would seem to be turning into a very competitive night (not for me though, what with bowling and all). The network may well penetrate the top three with this combination, although I'm prepared to argue that another cycle of ABC's Dancing With The Stars combined with the CBS comedies will keep the shows from making it into the top two. And even though it's been flagging I wouldn't expect American Idol to fall out of the top two on Tuesday night and I'd be so bold (and wise – when I predict something I like to know it's a sure thing before I predict it) as to suggest that American Idol will have no trouble winning the Wednesday first hour and give a good boost for Lie To Me, unfortunately probably to third place where it will knock out my beloved Life.
Bones should do well in the first hour of Thursday, at least until the new season of Survivor cuts in, but I doubt it will help Hell's Kitchen too much. As for Hole In The Wall coming in to replace the Football overrun opposite 60 Minutes and America's Funniest Home Videos...or even the CW's reruns of Jericho it has to be the most absurd thing I've heard of in a while. It's only going to last as long as it takes someone to actually see ratings for it.

That leaves us with Friday night and the much anticipated Dollhouse. For a die hard "Whedon-ista" like me this whole business of Joss taking another show to Fox is worrisome and to have that show wind up in the so-called "Friday Night death slot" makes it even worse. I'm sure that there are people out there right now getting ready to send dolls (or maybe doll heads) to the Fox offices to protest the cancellation of the show even though it hasn't aired yet. Visions of Firefly dance in our heads, and taken in the context of what happened to Firefly that is not a good thing. The show's lead-in, the less than spectacular performing Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, doesn't exactly fill us with confidence either. And yet I'm going to present a couple of reasons why I expect the show to do "well enough" to survive. By "well enough" I mean probably a second place finish in the ratings. The first of these reasons is that Joss feels confident with the current management at FOX – Whedon has said something to the effect that "these guys" aren't the same ones that interfered with and then cancelled Firefly (I just wish I could find the exact quote). By these guys Whedon was primarily referring to Kevin Reilly. And when you remember that Reilly is the guy who carried Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip for a full season, renewed Friday Night Lights for its second season despite the ratings, and stood up for 30 Rock, Whedon's confidence starts to make sense. As for putting the show in the "Friday night death slot" I'm going to suggest a look at the competition. CBS has Flashpoint which was a big success during the summer and will probably win the time slot, but what are ABC and NBC putting on in the second hour of Friday? Well, from ABC we get Supernanny which does badly in both the ratings and the demographics. As for NBC, they'll be running thirteen episodes of Friday Night Lights. As much as I love the show I can't see this doing well, given its performance last season and the fact that the thirteen episodes have already been available on the satellite service DirectTV (and not done very well). The net result is, I suspect (or at least hope), a second place performance for Dollhouse, always assuming of course that the show is at least halfway decent. Unless the show is really really bad, I don't think that we'll see the sort of quick cancellation that has made FOX infamous

While I don't think that FOX will perform as well as CBS for the remainder of the season, the network does have a stable and successful line-up on most nights that should see the network doing very well indeed.

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