'Fringe' Could Prove to Be Fox's Big Hit

Media Reviews for Media People: As Long as Series Doesn't Get Lost in the Details

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With the fall TV season set to get under way, Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg casts a critical eye on new and continuing series to help marketers determine which may prove to be the best showcases for their ads and products. This week, the focus is on Fox's "Fringe," a show the News Corp. network intends to support by running fewer ads and promos, a potentially intriguing economic model.
Anna Torv plays FBI Agent Olivia Dunham in Fox's 'Fringe.'
Anna Torv plays FBI Agent Olivia Dunham in Fox's 'Fringe.' Credit: Fox

"Fringe"

Where/When You'll See It: Fox, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (with a 90-minute premiere episode running tonight at 8 p.m.)

What You'll See: You read it here first. If TV shows were judged purely on quality, "Fringe" would be one of this season's big success stories. Weaving together a heady mix of outre scientific ideas, paranormal occurrences, a determined-but-vulnerable heroine and a father-and-son team of scientists, "Fringe" marries the genre for which its producer, J.J. Abrams, is best known -- a complex blend of mystery, drama and heroism, a la "Lost" -- with the detective procedural (think "CSI" or "Law & Order") that has proven so popular with TV viewers in recent years.

In "Fringe," FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv) finds herself embroiled in a real humdinger: Passengers aboard a transatlantic flight have been wiped out by a flesh-eating virus (if you loved the special effects in that old chestunut "Raiders of the Lost Ark," then you'll really like "Fringe"). When she and her partner (to whom she's also romantically linked) start to investigate, he's crippled in an explosion that exposes him to the same malady. To save him, she's got to find the cure -- fast.

So Dunham turns to Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a crackpot scientist who has been locked away in a mental ward for more than a decade. Only his son, smart-talking solider-of-fortune Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) can get her access to the man, and keep him relatively sane, so the three are linked together as they try to solve the mystery of the skin-melting epidemic and figure out who put it into play.

Their travails take them to a mysterious corporation known as Massive Dynamic, as well into experiments that involve taking LSD and submersion in a sensory deprivation tank (sounds like something out of the 1980 movie "Altered States"). By the end, we learn that all this is part of a bigger plot known as "The Pattern," and we're left to join Agent Dunham again when she and her team tackle another piece of the puzzle.

What's different about "Fringe" is that Fox has promised to run the entire season with only half the ads and network promos usually contained in an hour-long program. That means viewers are likely to have longer segments to enjoy -- the first ad breaks in a mock version of the program reviewed by Ad Age came in at 16 minutes into the first episode -- and not have to wait as long until the program comes back from a commercial.

Simply put, "Fringe" has cinematic qualities, cheesy face-dissolving special effects aside. If this is plotted out and paced as well as Mr. Abrams' other big hit, "Lost," Fox could have a large hit on its hands. Mr. Abrams and Fox would do well to consider the problems of an earlier production: ABC's "Alias." This was another buzz-worthy Abrams wonder that sparked conversation and kept advertisers in mind, but ultimately began to fall apart as the writers focused less on the vibrant heroine at its center -- Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow -- and more on an unwieldy plot that had little payoff and was too complex to follow week to week. "Fringe" needs to have a beginning, middle and an end in each episode, and Fox needs to commit to giving the drama room to breathe so the larger story can be told.

Neither a viewer nor an advertiser wants to get on board for a ride that gets cut short. If Fox can manage the entertainment -- and the new ad model behind it -- viewers could be in for quite a thrill.

What's at Stake? Only the future of TV advertising. OK, that's a little much, but if Fox can pull off its idea to run a high-quality drama with fewer ads, yet charge more for them, the ramifications could be vast. Viewers get better pacing and more story, while marketers run in a less-cluttered field. So their ads have the potential to stand out more vividly.

Your Ad Here? "Fringe" is filled with action and special effects, so ads supporting this program might play off those themes. Already, auto marketers and movie studios have shown lots of interest in the show, according to media buyers. And Viacom's Paramount Pictures and Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury are on board, according to one person familiar with the situation.

Media Buyer's Verdict: "Fringe" might have an edge. With "House" as a lead in, the show ought to be "solid" in the coveted adults 18-to-49 range, said Brad Adgate, senior VP-research, Horizon Media. Viewers may be "pleasantly surprised" by Fox's idea to run half the normal amount of ads, he said, "but what's really carrying the chatter right now is J.J. Abrams." Mr. Adgate expects "Fringe" to "have big numbers in its first week," but wants to see the size of the audience for subsequent episodes, which will offer a better idea about how broad any "Fringe" phenomenon ought to be.
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