After a disappointing fall start, Fox has decided to toss out its previously announced mid-season schedule and shift its American Idol franchise to a Wednesday and Thursday air pattern this January. The network had said in May that it planned to relocate Glee to Wednesdays once Idol returned. But with Glee now dominating Tuesday nights, Fox execs clearly decided not to mess with a lineup that was largely working, and instead focus on building up its weaker Wednesday and Thursday schedules. Even if you factor in post-Simon declines, Idol should still dominate whatever time slot it's in, potentially wounding comedy lineups on rival networks (including Modern Family and Community) as well as Fox's own Fringe, which is now being sent off to Friday-night Siberia.
The Idol switch means a lot of rearranging on Fox. Let's go over the details of the big changes Fox dumped late on a Friday:
— Idol will air audition and performance episodes Wednesdays and an hour-long results show on Thursdays at eight. After a two-hour season debut January 19, the Wednesday eps will range in length: 60 minutes during the audition rounds; two hours in the early performance weeks (starting Februaruy 16) and 90 minutes once the field is whittled down (beginning April 6). Human Target will air after the hour-long Wednesday editions of Idol, while new Christian Slater comedy Breaking In gets the time slot following the 90-minute Idols.
— With the Idol results show now Thursday at 8, Bones shifts back an hour to 9 p.m. Its supersize lead-in could make it a serious threat to CBS's CSI and possibly ABC's Grey's Anatomy. But it also means Fringe is bumped off the night, shifting to 9 p.m. Fridays (where it'll be paired with Kitchen Nightmares).
— Glee is so mighty this year, Fox will leave the show on the air for all of January, despite it being in reruns. The network will temporarily dump its comedy lineup on Tuesdays to make room for new game show Million Dollar Drop, which will air at 9 p.m., beginning January 4 (with bonus episodes on Thursday nights January 6 and January 13). Once Glee returns in originals on February 8, Raising Hope will return at 9 p.m. Tuesdays, paired with new comedy Mixed Signals. As expected, no sign of Running Wilde.
— As Fox previously announced, The Chicago Code replaces Lie to Me Mondays at nine, starting February 7. Also as expected, new animated comedy Bob's Burgers takes the place of The Cleveland Show Sundays at eight-thirty beginning January 9. Cleveland gets the cushy slot behind Family Guy, while American Dad shifts to 7:30 p.m.
It's not particularly shocking that Fox would rejigger its mid-season schedule: The network has often announced one lineup in May, then changed its mind months later (though in recent years, it had gotten better at sticking with its plans). And with Glee burning up the Nielsen charts on Tuesday, many industry insiders had been wondering if Fox really planned to shift its Tuesday tentpole to Wednesdays to make room for Idol. In the end, it turned out the answer was no — though, tantalizingly, Fox did consider shifting Glee somewhere else: Thursdays.
Preston Beckman, head of scheduling and research for Fox, says that the network first began noodling with the notion of a Thursday shake-up in May, right after CBS said it was moving Survivor off of the night. Then, "After one or two weeks of Glee and Raising Hope it started to become clear to us that we had options we didn't think we had in May," he says. "We could either move the Tuesday night lineup [of Glee and Raising Hope] to Thursdays, or we could do what we did. And what we did was the most aggressive, strategic long-term schedule for us."
Some industry insiders are convinced money was also a major motivating factor in Friday's shake-up. Fox had a pretty disappointing fall, with Lone Star tanking, House declining, and Fringe failing to improve on Thursdays. While Glee and Raising Hope did great, the network has had to compensate advertisers for falling below expectations in several time slots. Putting Idol on Thursday will allow Fox to make up the gap by commanding much higher ad rates on a key night (movie studios pay top dollar for Thursday hits). But there's also another nifty extra benefit for Fox: The network now gets to attack rivals' comedy lineups on Wednesday and Thursday.
As things were, ABC already expected to take a small hit on Wednesdays, but only with the lower-rated results show and only for 30 minutes: Fox had said its results show would (mercifully) shrink to a half-hour this season. But now, all four ABC comedies face the prospect of going up against Idol for big chunks of the winter and spring. Meanwhile, the Thursday shift puts Idol opposite CBS's newly relocated The Big Bang Theory, the crappy $#*! My Dad Says, and NBC's still-young Community. Beckman denies Fox is trying to torpedo its rivals- — or, at least, says that it wasn't goal No. 1. "Did we say, 'How can we screw three other networks?' Was that the motivation for doing this? No," he says. "It's always about how do we put on the best schedule for us."
On the bright side: At least Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock (airing at 9:30 and 10 p.m.) will be shielded from the Idol juggernaut. Not likely as happy: J.J. Abrams and die-hard fans of Fringe, which is now shifting to a tough Friday slot. Beckman is quick to caution anyone from declaring the show over. "We had to put our best schedule together, [but] I don't think anyone should assume this is its last season," he says. "We love Fringe. The episodes coming up are phenomenal." By contrast, Bones creator Hart Hansen was quite happy with his new post-Idol perch: "Hart was speechless," Beckman says.
Meanwhile, whatever the ratings impact of Fox's gambit, some rival network execs are already praising the PR brilliance of the change. Many had been expecting Idol to take a big hit in its first post-Simon season. That could still happen, but if it does, the network can now argue it's not the absence of Mr. Cowell (or America's verdict on the new judges). Instead, as one competing exec tells Vulture, "If they're down a little they can say, 'Of course we are. We knew we would be by moving to Thursday, but we did it to help the network overall.'" No surprise: Beckman has a more positive spin on the rationale of the shifts. "This is a vote of confidence in the long-term viability of Idol. It's a vote of confidence in Glee. And it's a vote of confidence in Bones," he says.