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Newsday: Is the Future Out There?

Is the Future Out There?
Verne Gay

(The Long Island daily newspaper)

“The X-Files” has become the X factor for a struggling Fox.

Poor, poor Fox. Imagine the painful musings that are now going through executives’ heads: “No one is watching us … no one is watching us.” The mantra has picked up in recent days. No matter what we do, what we put on (with the exception of “Ally McBeal’s” premiere) the song remains the same. No one is watching Fox.

And no one knows exactly why.

The numbers tell a particularly brutal tale. Last week – with the World Series airing Tuesday and Wednesday – virtually all Fox’ shows drew under a 10 percent audience share. The exception was Sunday, when an NFL overrun dragged some football fans into the prime-time schedule. So far this season, Fox’ regular shows are tracking more than half a rating point behind last year’s performance.

Fox has already canceled two shows (Harsh Realm, Ryan Caulfield: Year One), shelved two others (Family Guy, Action) and pulled one (Manchester Prep) even before a single episode aired. The network is now airing movies on Friday, throwing “trash” specials into other holes, and praying hard – that the new Chuck Woolery game show, “Greed,” which premiers tonight will not sink into the muck that has become its new season.

Executives don’t really want to talk about the fall and for good reason: They have no answers. There have been rumors – all unsubstantiated – that new boss Doug Herzog is about to take a bullet for the merging fiasco. That’s unlikely to happen, just yet. Herzog’s not to blame. He’s a newcomer (from cable’s Comedy Central) with some good ideas (Action) and some bad luck, who is saddled with a scheduling strategy sanctioned by Rupert Murdoch. But then no one is going to fire Rupert, are they?

So what gives? First off, “The X-Files” premieres Sunday, and Fox without “Files” is like NBC without “ER.” The premiere is a good and appropriately creepy continuation of last year’s season-ender, and the episode should do a big number.

Also, Fox typically has a poor October. Last year at this time, a bunch of new shows were canceled and another entertainment president (Peter Roth), took an early vacation. Then the rest of the season turned around – even though that was accomplished mostly by sensational “shock TV” specials.

Veteran TV observer Paul Schulman, president of Schulman/Advanswers NY (a media buying firm), says that “the biggest problem that Fox has is that they started the season late, and when you start “Files” in November, the hour version of “Ally” and “Party of Five” in October, you are, in effect, losing the promotional platform for your new shows.” He adds, “it also hurts that those who did tune to their new shows rejected them.”

Yes, indeed. But others just might argue that Fox’ biggest problem has to do with Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, the two guys who produce the network’s biggest show. Most people now assume that “The X-Files” will end this season; both David Duchovny (who is suing Fox for back-end profits) and Gillian Anderson have indicated they want out.

But in the strange netherworld that is Hollywood, the following could also happen: Fox, desperate to keep “Files” for an eighth season, could settle Duchovny’s suit and pay the producers and “ER”-size ransom to return.

Will they want to? Both Carter and Spotnitz were stunned when their “Harsh Realm” was dumped after just three airings. In an interview, Spotnitz says that “it seemed like a panicked, irrational decision. They came to us before the show debuted and said, ‘we blew it by not promoting the show. It’s just terrible and we’re going to try and make it up …’ And then, suddenly, it was canceled without any warning whatsoever. There was no discussion, we were not even privy to their line of thinking. So we were shocked.”

Now ask yourself this: If you were president of Fox, would you throw a cream pie in the face of your most important producers? Of course you wouldn’t. But sources say Fox execs were shocked themselves after they learned that the Oct 22 episode of “Realm” was nearly beaten by the WB’s “Steve Harvey Show.” Given that a founder of Fox (Jamie Kellner) now runs the WB, the humiliation was apparently too great to endure.

Spotnitz adds that “obviously we were very unhappy with the way they treated “Harsh Realm” but we love “Files” and we want to keep a firewall between the issues.”

But is the end out there? “You know, it may be, but I don’t know. But from where I stand, not knowing the answer, I’ll act as if it is. I don’t want to find out that it’s too late and [we] haven’t done anything about it. So we’re treating it creatively as if this is the last season. We don’t want to miss any opportunities that last year might give us.”

And those would be: a kiss between Mulder and Scully; an episode starring the magician, Ricky Jay; the return of Lance Henriksen’s character, Frank Black, to complete the storyline for the canceled “Millennium”; and the return of an evil serial killer from an early season who had kidnaped Scully. And may we humbly suggest another idea? An episode about how an entire nation of Fox viewers were abducted by aliens.

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