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Fox says it needs to lay off reality — a little

Network chief expects ‘American Idol’ ratings to drop in '05
/ Source: The Associated Press

The sagging Fox network’s chief executive admitted Monday it had leaned too heavily on reality programming this TV season, including the disastrous “Who’s Your Daddy?”

Fox has been caught on the wrong side of audience taste in the past few months. Scripted series like ABC’s Golden Globe-winning “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” are hot, while viewers seem to have little patience for new reality series.

There were others, but Fox’s problems were symbolized by “Who’s Your Daddy?,” the Jan. 3 show where an adopted daughter picked her birth father out of eight strangers and won a $100,000 prize.

Adoption advocates were appalled; the public didn’t seem to care. Only 6.3 million people watched, according to Nielsen Media Research. Five other “Who’s Your Daddy” episodes already filmed will be shelved, Fox entertainment president Gail Berman said Monday.

At its best, Fox is a mix of scripted and unscripted, high-brow and low-brow. “The Simpsons” can comfortably co-exist with “COPS,” she said.

“In the case of this fall we drifted to too much on the unscripted side,” Berman said. “But I think the audience expects loud things from Fox. Sometimes they work ... and sometimes they don’t.”

Fox is averaging 5.9 million viewers in prime-time this season, down from 6.5 million at this point last year, Nielsen said. More importantly for the youth-obsessed Fox, it is solidly in fourth place among viewers aged 18-to-49. It finished last season second behind NBC in this demographic.

So worried is Fox about audience trends that Berman was lowering expectations for its most popular show, “American Idol,” which debuts this week. She said she expected ratings to decline in its fourth season.

Fox loudly proclaimed an all-season strategy last year, promising to debut new series all year round, including summer. Viewers rejected that, too, but Berman isn’t giving up.

“There’s no question that the audience, in our mind, is ready, willing and able to accept new programming in the summer,” she said.

Fox will tweak the strategy this year, debuting some new shows in May instead of June, she said.

One new series will be the animated “American Dad,” which is given a sneak peek after the Super Bowl. It’s from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, who is also making new episodes of that cartoon after the cancelled series became an unexpected hit on DVD. Both new shows launch May 1.

Fox also announced that “That ’70s Show” has been renewed for an eighth season, even though series stars Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher aren’t returning. Both stars will make occasional guest appearances, Berman said.