AGGRESSIVE FOX TV FARE TRIES TO FIGHT SUMMER DOLDRUMS: BIG 4 NETWORK NUMBERS COULD HIT ALL-TIME LOW

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[los angeles] Network executives agree they must work harder to bring back TV viewers in the summer, but there's no clear answer how they can collectively boost their share of the audience.

Fox late last month unveiled an ambitious summer line-up with hopes of keeping network viewers from crossing over to cable. And although some rival network executives privately scoffed at Fox's programming plans-arguing it's actually just one new show, new episodes of another, and a few new cheap-to-produce, reality-based shows-most admit they'd like to see others follow suit and help create excitement for broadcast TV.

UNPRECEDENTED PLAN

"This plan is unprecedented in our company's history," said Peter Roth, Fox Entertainment president, of his network's goal to air original programming in 40% of its schedule this summer. "This may alter the way network broadcasters operate in the future."

Without the Olympic Games this year, the networks could see their audience share drop to its lowest levels yet this summer.

If recent trends hold, this summer's Big 4 share, or percentage of TV sets in use, could drop to around 55, down from last summer's 59 share and this regular season's 61 share, observers said.

When it comes to summer programming, the major networks are caught in a Catch 22. Lower homes-using-television levels mean lower ad rates, which don't justify airing costly original programming. But the glut of reruns is pushing more viewers to cable, which has aggressively counterprogrammed in recent summers.

"Unfortunately, the networks are in some sort of a chicken-and-egg scenario," said Jon Mandel, senior VP-director of national broadcasting at Grey Advertising, New York. "Do the viewers go away because [of summer], and that's why you don't put originals on, or do they go away because the networks don't put on originals?

"I think [viewers] go away because there aren't original shows, and of the original shows that [do air], people know these are `Busted Pilot Theater.' "

SOFT SUMMERS QUESTIONED

Said Mr. Roth: "It always confounded me why the networks would hang `gone fishing' signs in the summer months."

Conventional wisdom says sitcoms repeat well, while dramas-especially prime-time soaps-don't perform as hoped the second time around. That could be why drama-heavy Fox is the most eager to air summer programming that it hopes can stem the tide.

Fox, taking a risk, will program Universal's "Roar" this summer. The mythological action/adventure has a heavy license fee, and it remains to be seen whether summer ad sales will be able to support an expensive first-run drama.

"Roar" will air Mondays at 9 p.m. (ET) beginning July 14. If the show hits, expect it to return next mid-season.

MORE `MAD TV'

Meanwhile, in place of "Melrose Place," a U.S. version of the saucy British talk show "The Ruby Wax Show" airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. starting June 9. Also on that date, a prime-time version of the Saturday late-night series "Mad TV" starts airing on Mondays at 8 p.m.

The Dick Clark-produced series "Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction," hosted by James Brolin, joins the Sunday schedule May 25 at 7 p.m.

In place of "Party of Five," "Pacific Palisades," which has shown ratings declines since its April debut, airs 13 new episodes starting June 11 at 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, CBS announced some summer plans of its own, including the return of "Pearl," pulled off the schedule earlier this year to make room for mid-season replacements, starting Wednesday, June 4 at 8:30 p.m.

CBS' mid-season series "Life.*. . & Stuff," which failed to make the spring cut, will air starting Friday, June 6, at 8:30.M

Mr. Schneider is a reporter for Electronic Media.

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