FOX gives chase

Jan 10, 2007 at 12:00 am

In recent years, as predictable as that first bracing blast of winter, every January the Little Network that Rupert Built undergoes an amazing metamorphosis. FOX (Channel 2 in Detroit) slumbers in the national ratings each September through December, and this season the snooze left it looking nearly comatose.

Its medical drama House, led by the single most fascinating lead character on television as constructed by Golden Globe-nominated actor Hugh Laurie, is an unqualified hit. But one hot series does not a network make, and House is the only FOX program to consistently crack the top-40 shows in the Nielsen ratings this season. Its teen soap saga The O.C., once the red-hot darling of young female groupies, was canceled last week due to plummeting viewership. (The final episode airs at 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22.) Among its new fall series, only the sitcom 'Til Death, bolstered by star Brad Garrett's halo effect from Everybody Loves Raymond, has shown any promise; one comedy, Happy Hour, barely lasted that long. A drama, Vanished, also proved true to its title.

CBS (Detroit's Channel 62) has dominated the network ratings every week so far this season, but that's about to change. In true Hollywood fashion, the cavalry is arriving just in time to rescue FOX from certain doom: American Idol, the indomitable, inexplicable national phenomenon, returns for its sixth season at 8 p.m. next Tuesday, and 24, the pulse-pounding action thriller starring reigning Emmy best actor Kiefer Sutherland, explodes on the small screen with a two-night, four-hour season premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday nights.

Fanatical fans of 24 already know, but now everyone should understand why its hero Jack Bauer is the biggest badass on television. In a single day, he not only saves the country, he salvages a network.

"January," says Detroit FOX 2 creative services director Keith Stironek, "is a really cool time to be a FOX station."

FOX traditionally takes a major competitive hit in the fall, delaying and jumbling its season lineup in exchange for the prestige (and expanded ad revenues) of televising the baseball playoffs and World Series. Thus it's forced to backload its biggest guns until now — almost lost in the excitement is the note that Prison Break, the network's other water-cooler hit, also returns this month, at 8 p.m. Jan. 22 — because if FOX honcho Rupert Murdoch's own career has taught him any truth, it's this: It's not how you start, it's how you finish.

None of which concerns FOX 2 as much this season as it might have in some previous years. Because while the 2006 World Series was the lowest-rated baseball championship in television history, guess which city didn't care?

"We got handed a wonderful, wonderful Christmas present," gushed Stironek about Tiger Fever sweeping across our land. "It was like the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards and the Daytona 500 all wrapped into one for us." While other FOX affiliates struggled to survive, forced to carry prime-time Series games no one was watching, in Detroit nightly ratings of 40-plus — meaning four of every 10 televisions in all of southeastern Michigan were tuned to every pitch — were not uncommon.

FOX kicked off January with its first-ever coverage of the college football Bowl Championship Series (BCS), and its Notre Dame-LSU Sugar Bowl telecast last Wednesday won the night nationally. Ratings are still being compiled for Monday night's Ohio State-Florida national championship contest, but you can bet they'll be stratospheric. And now comes the biggest national game of all: American Idol.

In a country where instant celebrity has become the prevailing religion, Idol is pop culture's version of the Vatican: the place where warbling wannabes go to receive absolution. And whether you love or hate the arrogant pontiff of the series, judge-producer Simon Cowell, please take it from me: You have to watch the first two weeks of this show. It's simply the most hysterical reality programming on TV. That thousands of young hopefuls, most of whom couldn't carry a tune in a backpack, camp out overnight and stand in line for hours sincerely believing they could become the next Taylor, Carrie, Ruben et al., just to be told what they should have already known is fascinating to me. I mean, why aren't friends and family being honest with these people?

Meanwhile, on 24 (which should face some interesting competition from NBC's shiny new Monday night smash, Heroes), Bauer (Sutherland) returns from two years of torture in a Chinese prison a different man, and not for the better. His spirit has been broken, but it must be repaired quickly: America is under siege by a barrage of terrorist explosions and a new President Palmer (D.B. Woodside) needs his No. 1 wild card more now than ever.

The end result? Stironek says that despite its miserable September beginnings, the network has won the overall ratings race each of the last two seasons "and I don't think that anybody would tell you that's going to change." Talk about crazy like a FOX.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]