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FOX again leads the charge into new TV season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

That maverick Fox network is back to its old (and frequently clever) tricks.

The fall television season -- as traditionally defined by the Nielsen ratings service -- begins Sept. 18. But just as it has done in previous years, Fox is jumping the gun.

And the other networks are following suit.

Fox's new season begins tomorrow night with the return of Prison Break, a surprise hit about a young man who gets himself sent to prison so he can free his inmate brother. The taut, serial drama will be followed by the premiere of Vanished, a conspiracy / mystery saga about the disappearance of a U.S. senator's wife.

ABC begins its season on Sept. 12 with another cycle of Dancing With the Stars. CBS presents on Sept. 14 the season premiere of Survivor, followed by the Sept. 17 return of The Amazing Race. All three are highly rated reality series.

But Fox is outrunning them all. By the time the official premiere week arrives, that network, which last year finished first with the all-important demographic of viewers 18 to 49 years of age, will have rolled out its entire fall lineup, including five other new series besides Vanished.

And it still will have in reserve American Idol, the most popular series on network TV, and 24, the most imitated. Both shows begin their new seasons in January, when the other networks typically are scrambling to patch holes in their schedules with midseason replacements.

"It's different, and it took us a while to figure it out, but this is the kind of scheduling that works for us," says Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic program planning at Fox. "Each network really has to go with its own strengths and vision, and a traditional fall premiere strategy

wasn't going to make it at Fox."

At a time when viewers are as likely to watch TV at midday on a computer as they are onscreen in the evening, it is increasingly uncertain that the 40-year-old concept of a splashy fall premiere week is going to work for any network.

That change led NBC to make two of its new dramas available to subscribers of Netflix as of Aug. 5. Starting Sept. 1, two more will be available online at NBC.com, with another yet offered free as an iPod download.

CBS is offering sneak previews of the pilots of two of its new series to passengers on American Airlines. Though considered the most traditional of five major broadcast networks, CBS also is expected to offer free online sneak previews starting Sept. 1.

"The idea of a fall premiere week is totally out of touch with the reality of how people watch television today," says University of Maryland media historian and economist Douglas Gomery. "The

television season is every day all year whenever there's a good show that people want to watch. How can you talk about the fall when American Idol starts in January? Fox understood and acted on that reality sooner than the others."

Fox's break from fall tradition started in 2003, Beckman says, and it was based on the recognition "that viewers were smart enough to know that the only new programming in the summer was usually bad programming that the networks were burning off." And viewers had come to "resent" it, he says.

The widespread practice at the time involved networks airing leftover episodes of series that they had already decided to cancel. To capture the attention of younger viewers during the doldrums of summer programming, Fox debuted on Aug. 5 2003 The O.C., a teen drama about life in the upscale community of Orange County, Calif. The series had generated considerable online buzz before it even went into production, and it quickly became one of the hottest series of the year.

"The O.C. was on six weeks before the other networks even started -- well on its way to becoming a hit," Beckman says.

A network is the sum of many parts -- not just a product of its prime-time dramas and sitcoms. One of the driving forces behind Fox's desire to find a new model of year-round programming was the network's contract to carry major-league baseball playoff series in October.

"If we started the season during the traditional premiere week, our new shows would be going off the air for baseball after only one or two weeks," Beckman says, explaining that it would be all but impossible for freshmen series to find an audience with such short initial exposure.

"By the time baseball comes around this fall, our new series will have had at least six weeks of sampling. And viewers will have

settled back in with their favorite returning series."

In addition to the return of Prison Break tomorrow night, Bones starts its second season on Aug. 30, while House rejoins the schedule Sept. 5. The Simpsons is back for the start of its 26th season on Sept. 10.

"I think we finally have got the scheduling just about right the last year," Beckman says. "This summer, we didn't go crazy with reality TV. We only put on two shows that we were pretty sure of -- Hell's Kitchen and So You Think You Can Dance. And now, we debut new shows in August and try to establish a few before baseball. And, then, in January, it's 24 and American Idol."

Even Beckman acknowledges, though, that innovation in the fall comes much easier "when you have two heavy hitters like 24 and American Idol waiting in the wings" of winter to blow away the competition.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

A glimpse at Fox's new shows

Fox offers one of the most balanced lineups of new series this fall: reality, sitcoms and both serialized and traditional dramas. Here's a preview of the new shows.

Vanished (tomorrow at 9 p.m.) is reminiscent in subject matter and style of the CBS hit Without a Trace. But unlike Trace, which follows and resolves a different missing person case each week, Vanished will focus on the disappearance of a U.S. senator's wife (Joanne Kelly) all season long.

During the investigation, a team of FBI investigators (Gale Harold and Ming-Na) comes upon what looks to be a widespread conspiracy. Shades of The X-Files? What's wrong with that?

While the senator is played by John Allen Nelson, aka Walt Cummings, the corrupt presidential chief of staff on 24 last year, the actor to watch is Harold, who was last seen as Brian McKinney in Showtime's Queer as Folk. Harold has real presence and could be a big star by the end of the year -- if viewers don't tire of the one case on which the series is hung.

Celebrity Duets (Tuesday at 9 p.m.) is another performance reality series produced by Simon Cowell, the rude judge from American Idol. As with Dancing With the Stars, celebrities are paired with experts -- in this case, recording artists. Lucy Lawless, Lea Thompson and Cheech Marin are among the celebrities. Musicians include Aaron Neville, Clint Black and Smokey Robinson. Sing, Xena, sing.

Justice (Wednesday at 9 p.m.) is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI and Without a Trace) and stars Victor Garber (Alias) as a flamboyant criminal defense attorney. The pilot is a warmed-over, fictionalized version of the Laci Peterson case, with a twist. Nothing to get excited about.

Standoff (Sept. 5 at 8 p.m.) features another male-female FBI team (Ron Livingston and Rosemarie DeWitt) -- this one not nearly as interesting as the pair in Vanished. The two specialize in crisis negotiation and dull romantic banter.

'Til Death (Sept. 7 at 8 p.m.) brings Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond) back to prime time. Garrett is a skilled comic performer, but the marital misery that engulfs his character is a little hard to take.

Happy Hour (Sept. 7 at 8:30 p.m.) is a sitcom that celebrates alcohol, sex and young men acting stupid. Someone needs to tell the producers that the sitcom is dead, and shows like this are the reason why.

[David Zurawik]

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