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upfronts 2011

Fox Status Update: Where Does the Top Network Stand Going Into Its X Factor Year?

In our continuing run-up to the announcements of the new fall schedules at next week's upfronts, we're analyzing a different network each day to point out their strengths and weaknesses, their buzziest pilots, and their likely moves. We predict their sales pitch and give our armchair suggestions that they ignore at their own ratings risk. Yesterday we started at the last-place major network, NBC, and today we vault to the net that's first in young viewers, Fox. They kept American Idol from a post-Simon free fall and now have a post-Idol Simon they hope will be in his ascendancy. But what about the rest of their aging schedule?

Where it stands: Once again Fox is TV's No. 1 network with viewers under 50, mostly because of the continuing success of American Idol (with a boost from the Super Bowl). It's a big win for Fox, since going into last fall the net's rivals smelled blood. With Simon Cowell leaving Idol and viewers fretting the show had grown stale, many confidently predicted the show would stumble badly and take down the rest of the network. Didn't happen. While Idol isn't having the ratings resurgence some media reports have portrayed — its Nielsen numbers are down among adults 18 to 49 — the singing competition remains a strong engine for the rest of the network. That said, Fox (like all of its rivals) failed to develop a big new scripted hit this season. Other than Raising Hope, none of the network's new fall series survived; among mid-season entries, only Traffic Light (and maybe Chicago Code) appear to have much of a chance. And on Mondays, House has taken a major ratings hit of late. Then there's Glee: It remained a Nielsen powerhouse in the fall and early winter, but its ratings declines in recent weeks have rival networks wondering whether the series could be an Ugly Betty: an out-of-the-box supernova that quickly fades as viewers tire of uneven storytelling. Still, Fox gets major props for pulling off a tricky schedule change by shifting the Idol air pattern to Wednesday and Thursday. Not only did that mean millions more in ad revenue for Fox, (advertisers pay a premium for hit shows on Thursdays), it also hurt CBS's plans for comedic hegemony on Thursday nights with The Big Bang Theory.

What they'll say: We're the strong, stable network that managed to keep Idol alive when everyone said it was over. We've got a year-round reality template on Wednesday and Thursdays, between Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and, soon, The X Factor. Between Idol and Glee, Fox dominates the pop-culture landscape with shows boasting loyal, engaged, and very young viewers.

Buzz shows: Even though it just confirmed its coaching panel this weekend and won't premiere until September, The X Factor hovers near the top of Vulture's Anticipation Index. That's buzz, baby! As for scripted shows, Terra Nova has been ordered and is even being promoted on air for a fall launch; that said, some Hollywood insiders are convinced it'll be pushed to mid-season (again) or maybe shut down completely. We have zero evidence to back that up, however, so for now just consider Terra Nova a new Fox series. Meanwhile, the Hollywood trades continue to tout medical drama Weekends at Bellevue and spy caper Exit Strategy as Fox contenders. Comedy-wise, some insiders think Glee regular Mike O'Malley could end up doing double duty via Family Album, which would make a good fit with Raising Hope (and Glee) on Tuesdays. Don't be surprised if Fox announces the scheduling of some new animated shows on Sundays, either.

Biggest scheduling question mark: Will Fox leave Bones on Thursday night come mid-season, or use the strength of Idol to try out something new in the 9 p.m. hour?

Potential surprise: Besides the notion of Terra Nova being delayed or going away, we keep hearing that Fox execs might bring back Human Target, a show we had assumed was a goner.

Free scheduling advice: Preston Beckman, Fox's scheduling guru, doesn't really need our advice. But we'd like to suggest the network use Saturdays for something other than Cops and America's Most Wanted. Even if it's not original fare, why not shrink the two veterans to an hour and air a repeat of a new Fox show that could use some added exposure?

Upfront theme song: Any number of brash "We're No. 1 and aren't going anywhere" themes: Usher's "More," maybe? Pink's "Raise Your Glass"? D.J. Khaled's "All I Do Is Win"?

Bottom line: Fox has ridden the Idol express longer than anyone in TV land expected, and there's little to suggest the network's hold on No. 1 with adults 18 to 49 will slip away anytime soon. Its biggest challenge remains figuring out the balance between relatively conventional procedural fare (like Bones) and riskier bets (such as Glee). We're also hoping the network doesn't let the modest performance of Fringe steer it away from trying out sci-fi fare such as Locke and Key or Alcatraz.

Related: NBC Status Update: Where Does the Fourth-Place Network Stand Heading Into Upfronts?
TV Buzz Check: What Big Moves Will the Networks Make During Upfronts?