Fox's Fall Season All About Adult Entertainment

Network Not Known for More-Sophisticated Fare Revamps Programming

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One of the more buzzed-about TV sitcoms of the coming fall season stars A-list TV actors Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, as well as an ensemble cast and lots of nuanced humor. Set in the newsroom of a Pittsburgh TV station, "Back to You" brings to mind past upscale, intelligent comedies such as "NewsRadio" and even "Murphy Brown."
'Back to You,' starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, is the kind of show Fox is leaning toward under chairman-entertainment Peter Liguori.
'Back to You,' starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, is the kind of show Fox is leaning toward under chairman-entertainment Peter Liguori. Credit: Fox

And where can you watch it? Fox, the network once best known for outrageous comedies such as "Stacked," whose sole reason for being, it seemed, was to pair actress Pamela Anderson with that program's title.

For years, Fox cultivated a reputation for whipping out so-trashy-it's-good programming such as "Melrose Place" and "Temptation Island." Now Fox is all grown up. One of its new programs, "K-Ville," depicts cops struggling to keep the peace in a rebuilding New Orleans -- that's a long way to travel from the Rhode Island home of "Family Guy."

Fueling the notion that Fox wants to mature is the recent addition of a man with decidedly adult tastes: Kevin Reilly, who just left as NBC's entertainment chief. Mr. Reilly helped Peter Liguori, just named Fox Broadcasting's chairman of entertainment, turn the FX cable outlet from a place better known for "NYPD Blue" reruns to a place recognized for edgy dramas, such as "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" with complex protagonists and varied casts.

Fox still wants to be bold, Mr. Liguori said -- but not necessarily in the same way. "I have to admit, it's a difficult conversation to have when one brings up 'Married ... With Children.'" he asked. That program, rife with sexual innuendo and a rowdy laugh track, "was a cornerstone in the birth of this network," but these days, he said, shows like that "are in the rearview mirror." Now, Mr. Liguori said, programs such as "House" are the norm -- assertive dramas that can draw a broader audience. "We make sure we take care of our core first, and then invite everyone else in if they'd like," he said.

Standing on its own
Even so, Fox has good reason to push for a broader audience. Fox needs to show Wall Street it can lessen its dependence on its megahit "American Idol," which buoys the second half of the year and is one of the main reasons for its ratings success, said Michael Nathanson, a media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. He estimates the network can raise its profits to between $50 million and $60 million in the next season, compared with about $20 million for the recently completed one.

Fox also has a real shot at soothing a longstanding Achilles' heel: launching programs in the first half of the TV season. For years, Fox has had to work around a slew of postseason baseball games in order to air Major League Baseball's World Series. That means the first half of its season has always been relatively lackluster. "We always talk about it in terms of fourth-quarter Fox and there's January-through-May Fox, and it's kind of, 'Which Fox do you want to be a part of?'" said Laura Carracioli-Davis, exec VP of Starcom Entertainment. Fox has "every hope and expectation that the shows will perform better this fall," Mr. Liguori said.

Meanwhile, viewers who yearn for the days of Fox's ribald humor needn't despair. One program set to make its debut in the second half of the season is called "Unhitched." Previews include a scene in which the sitcom's main character is sexually assaulted by a monkey.
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