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Tuned In: Execs want to shake Fox's shock-reality network image

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- After premiering a multitude of flops this fall, Fox finally got a hit Sunday night with the premiere of "Malcolm in the Middle." The dysfunctional family comedy drew 22.4 million viewers to become the highest-rated Fox premiere since "The Simpsons" in 1990.

That spared Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow and President of Entertainment Doug Herzog from a completely downbeat meeting with TV critics yesterday.

But not by much.

Rather than basking in the glow of "Malcolm's" success, Grushow and Herzog spent most of their press conference before the nation's TV critics apologizing for past mistakes.

"We had a bad fall, not like Sofia Coppola in 'Godfather III' bad, but bad, like really bad," Herzog said.

They acknowledged scheduling, programming and marketing mistakes led to Fox's disastrous fall season but were quick to point out trouble was brewing.

"What Fox experienced this broadcast season has been several years in the making," Grushow said. "The natural aging of our most successful series franchises and the failure to create enough new franchises to replace those in decline" led the list of mounting Fox troubles.

Grushow acknowledged "the short-term fix of shock reality specials ... has come back to bite us on the collective Fox behind."

Perhaps most importantly, Grushow said those programs, although still highly rated, diluted and tainted the Fox brand identity.

"We're recommitted to the principles that brought us to the proverbial dance," Grushow said. "Without quality series like 'The Simpsons,' 'In Living Color' and 'The X-Files,' there would be no Fox today."

Herzog said the reality specials have changed the image of Fox from a network with quality shows like "The Simpsons" or "Ally McBeal" to a place to watch car crashes, people falling from burning buildings and good pets gone bad.

"It is not who we want to be," Herzog said. "Those perceptions are hard to shake, and it will take time to shake them."

Grushow said Fox won't back away from creatively risky shows like this fall's flop, "Action." "I'd rather fail with quality than succeed with garbage."

Some of Fox's reality specials remain to be aired, particularly episodes of "Guinness World Records," but Grushow promised there would be no further "When Animals Attack" specials and that plans to crash a 747 in the desert have been scrapped, too.

"Right now, we're sort of on the methadone program," Grushow said. "We've committed a lot of money to these shows; we have a lot of product sitting on the shelf. We have to be really discriminatory about what we want to put on our air. I think it's possible to get numbers with entertainment reality specials as opposed to blood-and-guts reality specials."

Grushow said there's a need to create entertaining reality programs that will attract viewers the way "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" has done. He also expressed a desire to get into original TV movies "in a meaningful way."

But for mid-season, the only series on the horizon (other than "Malcolm") is "Titus," starring stand-up comic Christopher Titus as a guy who talks to the camera about his dysfunctional family. Obnoxious and annoying, "Titus" will do little to help Fox out of its slump.

Fox plans to air original episodes of other mid-season shows this summer, including "The PJs," "Family Guy," and "Gary and Mike," a previously announced foamation series about slackers on a road trip. Herzog said only six episodes were made.

Other summer shows include a 13-episode documentary series set at a high school in suburban Chicago and possibly summer-themed episodes of "Beverly Hills, 90210," which may live to see an 11th season next fall. The game show "Greed" might also return for a summer run.

And while "That '70s Show" has turned into a sophomore hit, there's still no definitive word on whether "The X-Files" will return for an eighth season. Published reports in the Hollywood trades Monday indicated Fox has renewed "Futurama" for the 2000-2001 season.

The network has James Cameron's "Dark Angel" in development for fall, along with a Tom Hanks-produced drama set at a military academy; a new drama from author Michael Crichton ("ER"); a live-action version of the comic book "The Tick"; a Wall Street-set drama from Darren Starr ("Melrose Place," "Sex and the City"); and a drama from the creators of "thirtysomething" and "Once and Again."

"ANGEL" EYES MORE COMEDY: A visit to the set of "Angel" revealed there are indeed containers of blood -- or perhaps a close facsimile -- in the vampire's refrigerator.

Angel's cramped apartment was the setting for a press conference with series co-creator Joss Whedon and stars David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter and newcomer Alexis Denisof, whose Wesley replaces the recently departed Doyle (Glenn Quinn).

In the face of many doubters, Whedon stuck to his story that it was always his plan to kill off the Doyle, even though the character was presented in press materials as a regular main character.

"We always wanted to shake things up by getting rid of Angel's mentor, something I've talked about before, by setting up somebody we assumed was going to be there the whole time and then killing them in a really surprising way," Whedon said. "I tried to do it on 'Buffy.' I wanted to have somebody in the opening credits in the first episode, Eric Balfour who played Jesse, [and then kill him off] and it was just too complicated to do it then. This time I could."

Carpenter said she sometimes worries her character might be written out -- and then raised questions about other possible reasons for Quinn's departure: "You've got to know your lines the best you can and be on time and do the best you can."

"I make jokes that their character are being killed all the time," Whedon said.

"We never laugh," Carpenter responded. "It's not funny. It's the only joke you have that's not funny."

Denisof, who introduced Wesley last season on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," will be added to the opening credits of "Angel" in the next original episode. Whedon acknowledged the addition of Wesley and the ghost who lives with Cordelia (Carpenter) are efforts to lighten up the dark series.

"The action and horror was taking care of itself, but we get bored if we can't do comedy," Whedon said. "We did want to keep it light. The ghost stuff we were working out before the show even started, so it was always the idea. I do feel like the first episodes didn't really hit that as much as the later ones."

More crossovers with "Buffy" are tentatively planned if schedules can be worked out, Whedon said. And speaking of "Buffy," Oz (Seth Green) will return, although probably as a guest star, and Spike's ex-flame, Dru, may make another appearance.

"We have something in the back of our minds [for her,] but we haven't firmed anything up," Whedon said. "The question is always when's the worst possible time for her to show up, and that's when you should be looking to see her."

In last month's "Buffy" tour de force, "Hush," Willow (Alyson Hannigan) met another witch, Tara (Amber Benson), who seemed to have an interest in Willow that rose above friendship.

"She and Willow are going to have a very close friendship kind of relationship," Whedon said, "but there's stuff going on I can't reveal."

NBC MOVIES: Expect a change in course away from fantasy-based movies and miniseries after this season on NBC. Lindy DeKoven, executive vice president of movies and miniseries, resigned over the weekend.

She brought "Gulliver's Travels" and "Merlin" to the network with much fanfare and success, but November's "Leprechauns" was a ratings disappointment and the upcoming 10-hour fantasy miniseries "The 10th Kingdom" was partially moved out of February sweeps.

NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa told Daily Variety NBC did too many special effects-filled miniseries in a row.

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