The Biz: Fox refuses to risk 'O.C.' on Thursdays

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Fox Television's hit prime-time soap "The O.C." returns this week, but it will not land in the competitive Thursday night slot as originally promised by the network. Instead, it moves to a much safer haven on Wednesday at 9 p.m.-a shift some see as a Fox cop-out.

"They could have done well on Thursday," says Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming services for Aegis Group's Carat North America. "Thursday is ripe for the picking. NBC especially is vulnerable. `Coupling' has been de-coupled from the lineup. `Friends' is aging. `Will and Grace' too. This is the year Fox could have aggressively gone after them. Instead, they blinked. They choked."

Laura Caraccioli-Davis, VP-director of Starcom Entertainment, a unit of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group, put it just as bluntly: "Fox just chickened out. We thought they were going to put a stake in the ground, establish their turf and no matter what keep it on Thursday to establish themselves as big players. But they got scared. I think they just thought if we really want to keep our audience, rather than divide and conquer, the show will do best on Wednesday."

Early Launch

Fox launched the show in the summer with DVD giveways of the first episode to readers of top teen magazines. They also did cross promotion deals with record companies, Web sites and aired a constant ad campaign on Fox. Finally, they jumpstarted the show itself in August, well before the prime-time premieres of other new programs.

But despite its promising start and strong ratings, Fox seems to be playing it safe. "The O.C." on Wednesday goes up against ABC's "The Bachelor" and NBC's "West Wing," and neither attracts the kind of young demographic that tunes into the weekly escapades of young Marisa, Ryan and Ben, and their charismatic, complicated parents.

tough competition

"It would be nice to get a foothold on Thursday night," says John Nesvig, president-advertising sales for Fox. "But it's still a pretty tough, competitive night and if you want to get a show like `The O.C.' established, you want to put it in the most advantageous time period and Wednesday seemed a better shot. These things take time to get going, but once they do, they stay forever. Like `Dallas,' `Beverly Hills 90210' and `Melrose Place,' they require nurturing so that you have a real asset on your hands."

Despite the move, or perhaps because of it, media agencies are predicting that "The O.C." numbers will prove boffo. Carat North America is projecting what it calls a "conservative 8.5 million viewers," which is about 27% better than "Fastlane," the Fox show that appeared in the Wednesday night 9 p.m. slot last year.

"The reason I'm being conservative with this is the college student factor," Brill says. "While college students are home during the summer they are part of the Nielsen household People Meter panel. Many of them are away at school in the fall and are not counted by Nielsen." Brill says college students are a substantial part of "The O.C." audience.

"The O.C." move to Wednesday night is not entirely painless for Fox. Advertisers are not taking the change lying down. "Everything was highly sold in the upfront and `The O.C.' was one show the advertisers really liked," says Nesvig. "Making the move from Thursday to Wednesday is involving lots of renegotiation."

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