Analyzing FOX’s mid-season schedule shake-up

Senior Television Writer
11.19.10 57 Comments


For most of the last decade, the TV season for FOX has followed a familiar, wildly successful pattern: debut a bunch of shows in the fall, struggle with low ratings and baseball interruptions, then dominate the ratings once “American Idol” starts airing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in January.

That part of the FOX formula was nice, simple, uncomplicated and unstoppable. There might be ridiculous changes to the rest of the schedule – or changes promised but never fulfilled, like all those times they claimed “Bones” was gonna air on Fridays – but the “Idol” part remained a constant.

Nothing about “Idol” is constant anymore, though. Though still the number one show on TV last year, its ratings slipped from invulnerable and godlike to merely much better than everything else. Now the judging panel has had massive turnover, producer Nigel Lythgoe is back, and he’s promising a lot of wacky (and so far silly) sounding changes, like eliminating the semi-final round and adding “challenges” for the contestants beyond “pick a song that won’t bore the audience to death while trying to dance in rhythm to it.”

So why not shake up the show’s air pattern while we’re at it? For years, the other networks have referred to “Idol” as the Death Star, but as we learned in the original “Star Wars,” the Death Star can move, and in the complicated new mid-season schedule that FOX has announced – which includes “Idol” shifting over from Tuesday/Wednesday to a Wednesday/Thursday pattern – Thursday nights is apparently the equivalent of the fourth moon of Yavin.

Fienberg has all the details – including “Fringe” being banished to Fridays, “Human Target” getting a few post-“Idol” airings and “Bob’s Burger” getting to air after “The Simpsons” – and after the jump I have some thoughts on the possible reasons behind and potential results of all these moves:

The power of “Glee”: This, Dan and I agree, is what the whole schedule hinges on. In the original mid-season schedule announced last spring (insert laughter now at how little it resembles the one from today), “Glee” was going to get an “Idol” lead-in again. That seems to have been FOX hedging its bets until they saw how “Glee” did on its own. And the musical comedy has done just fine opening a night this fall, down only slightly from how it did after “Idol” in the spring. Whether “Idol” rebounds or not, whether next year’s Simon Cowell-led “X-Factor” is a hit in the States or not, FOX now knows it has a new, very profitable hit in “Glee” that no longer needed support from its reality heavyweight. And the Tuesday success of “Glee” allowed FOX to shift “Idol” to two different nights – one of them Thursday, which, thanks to movie advertising, is the biggest money-maker of the week.

Plus, now that it doesn’t have an “Idol” lead-in – or any lead-in – Gleeks no longer have to worry about the start time being pushed back by the incompetence of “Idol” director Bruce Gowers, and in turn having the end of the show missing from their DVRs.

“Idol” thoughts: I almost feel like I need a bunch of bullet points just on the “Idol” move, like the fact that “Idol” will now be a weekly competitor to “Survivor.” “Idol” aired on Thursday on occasion in the past – usually when the semi-final format had the male and female contestants competing on different nights – but those usually aired at 9, meaning the show will now be in regular competition with “Survivor” on Wednesday nights. How will Jeff Probst and company cope?

As for the regularly-scheduled Thursday results show, while “Idol” has done fine on Thursdays in the past, it’s usually done less-well than on Wednesdays. So this is either, again, about not disrupting “Glee” by moving it to a tougher night, or FOX has done a calculus and realized that a slightly lower Thursday rating is worth more than their usual Wednesday one.

Also worth noting A)That the results show will now air at 8 again, allowing FOX to use it as a lead-in to something (in this case “Bones,” which should get at least two years added to its lifespan as a result) rather than the weird recent pattern of putting shows like “Human Target” on before “Idol” to reap virtually no benefit from the association (and even “Target” now has a chance at a third season simply by virtue of airing three times after “Idol” in late January/early February), and B)That despite all the promise of a half-hour results show, because nobody likes the hour-long version, we yet again have an hour-long version – and the performance show will be a regularly-scheduled 90-minute format, even though we’re back down to three judges and don’t need the extra Kara DioGuardi time. So FOX has actually added a half-hour of “Idol” to the schedule. If this doesn’t result in more performances by the contestants on the Wednesday show somehow… I give up.

Oh, and one more thing: “Community” can not catch a break. First CBS puts “Big Bang Theory” there, and now “Idol.” Yeesh.

Crisis on two “Fringe” universes?: The big victim in all of this – other than “Running Wilde,” which was doomed anyway by low ratings, and wasn’t likely to stick around no matter what was done to the schedule – is “Fringe,” which moves from a tough Thursday timeslot where it had managed to just barely survive, to Fridays, where FOX sci-fi shows have gone to die for a good 10 years or so now. It’s unfortunate, given that this has been that show’s best season by far, but I’d say there’s a slight ray of hope: unlike “Dollhouse,” which debuted on Friday, or “Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which was still young and had already done poorly in a timeslot earlier in the week, “Fringe” will have been around for two-plus years, with an audience that’s small but has been commercially-viable so far. FOX schedulers have talked about how the show has survived in a tough timeslot in part because its fans are tech-savvy and DVR it to watch later- the rare show kept alive largely by its DVR numbers – and that could still hold true on Friday. It’s not a good thing for the show, but it may not be a death sentence, either.

Third time’s the charm for Slater?: Someone, somewhere in the TV business got it into their heads that Christian Slater, who hasn’t qualified as a movie star in nearly 15 years (going back to “Broken Arrow,” probably, and even there he was co-billed with John Travolta), is destined for big big TV stardom, despite no supporting evidence past or present. “My Own Worst Enemy” was one of the bigger flops of the brief but gloriously weird Ben Silverman era at NBC. “The Forgotten” lived up to its name on ABC last year. Now it’s FOX turn in this weird Slater game, and his “Breaking In” will get to air after the 90-minute “Idol” performance show on Wednesdays.

Even with that kind of lead-in, I will not be surprised at all if next season, he’s working on CBS on a new Chuck Lorre sitcom (or as Charlie Sheen’s replacement on “Two and a Half Men”).

What does everybody else think of the new schedule? Sensible, or even wackier than all of NBC’s changes?

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