FOX has been the top-rated network on TV for seven seasons now, and will likely remain so until "American Idol" falls completely off a cliff. There are seasons where the network takes advantage of its inevitable top-dog status to take big risks, and then there are seasons where FOX execs play things conservatively.
The 2011-12 schedule the network announced Monday morning looks at first glance to be one of the conservative ones, with few of the huge mid-season changes that usually appear at upfront time (and are usually changed six or seven more times before mid-season actually starts). Simon Cowell's new singing competition "The X Factor" takes over the exact real estate that "Idol" holds in the spring, which means the FOX fall schedule looks very similar to the FOX spring schedule. There are at least seven new shows debuting at some point during the season, but most are in protected timeslots and designed to maintain a conssitent scheduling flow.
FOX is seemingly playing things so safe, in fact, that the network's entertainment president blamed last week's sweeping cancellation of all his bubble shows (including "The Chicago Code," "Breaking In" and "Lie to Me") on success, not failure.
"To be candid, a couple of the shows we had to let go because we didn't have the shelf space probably would have made the cut on other networks," Kevin Reilly told reporters. "We can be more conservative this year."
Of course, it's only a conservative schedule if you believe, like Reilly and entertainment chairman Peter Rice believe, that "X Factor" will be a huge hit, even though "X Factor" and "Pop Idol" never aired in the same season in the UK, and even though NBC already beat Cowell's show to the punch with "The Voice," which, like "X Factor," has the judges serving as mentors to teams of contestants.
"We feel we have the gold standard in 'Idol' and 'X Factor,'" Rice insisted. "We feel really good about our two shows... We're going to schedule them and play our game."
If "X Factor" doesn't work - if viewers haven't missed Simon from "Idol," and if people will now look at it as a "Voice" clone - FOX will still probably win next season based on "Idol" alone. But so much of the network's strategy for both season-long stability and launching new hits assumes that it will work. We'll see.
Fienberg posted the full schedule this morning, and here's my analysis of it, night-by-night:
MONDAY: The FOX execs insist the Steven Spielberg-produced time travel drama "Terra Nova" won't be pushed back yet again, after it was already supposed to debut at mid-season this year, and then after the "Glee" season finale. And based on the huge expense, Reilly says they'll be patient with it "short of some disaster" (like the one that felled "Lone Star" after two episodes this season). FOX execs clearly believe "Terra Nova" can stand on its own, which is why they're airing it before "House" rather than after, while their confidence in JJ Abrams' "Alcatraz" (which will air at 9 while "House" moves back to 8) seems less rock-solid.
Click here for new images of the cast of "Alcatraz."
TUESDAY: "Glee" leads into a pair of sitcoms again, with FOX betting that the Zooey Deschanel-starrer "New Girl" will be a bigger hit than "Raising Hope" (which returns in the lower-profile 9:30 slot) turned out to be. The most interesting idea here is that when "Glee" takes its annual mid-season siesta, likely in March, Reilly wants to try a four-sitcom night featuring (assuming nothing's canceled early) "New Girl," "Raising Hope," "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" and one of a pair of sitcoms still in contention for mid-season, "Family Album" and "Little in Common." Like NBC (and, I'm guessing, ABC), FOX wants to get a second comedy night going if it can.
WEDNESDAY: Again, assuming that both "X Factor" and "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" work, we'll get a similar schedule in fall and spring.
THURSDAY: "Bones" will take a break at mid-season due to Emily Deschanel's pregnancy, and FOX will swap in "The Finder," which debuted as a backdoor pilot in a "Bones" episode a few weeks ago. Thursdays used to be a sinkhole for FOX; thanks to "Bones" and "Idol," it's now a stalwart for the network.
FRIDAY: Status quo throughout the year: "Kitchen Nightmares" and "Fringe," which will wind up in a sci-fi pile-up of sorts opposite NBC's "Grimm" and, likely, the CW's "Supernatural."
SATURDAY: Here may be the biggest news of the FOX schedule: "America's Most Wanted" is being downgraded from an ongoing series to four two-hour specials each year. Producer John Walsh and the show's fans protested loudly the last time FOX tried to take it off the schedule, but Reilly insisted this was different.
"It's been no secret to John we have not made money on the show in quite a while," he said. "It was economically getting to the place where it was not particularly viable, but we wanted to keep the franchise alive." He said Walsh was in talks with other NewsCorp properties (MyNetworkTV, maybe?) to keep the show going as a weekly series.
SUNDAY: "Bob's Burgers" didn't do spectacularly well after "The Simpsons" this spring, but still got renewed and will be back at mid-season (in an even less compatible timeslot after "Family Guy," which is the curse of being an idiosyncratic comedy; nothing's a perfect fit). The post-"Simpsons" timeslot, meanwhile, will go to a pair of cartoon newbies: the Jonah Hill-produced "Allen Gregory" (about a precocious 7-year-old going to elementary school after being home-schooled) in the fall, and an animated "Napoleon Dynamite" in the spring.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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