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Sly like a Fox. Slow like a tortoise.

Seeking to shelter its new series from the Darwinian early months of the fall TV season--and avoid consecutive fall launch disasters--Fox has decided on what could be called a "stagger and delay" strategy to debut most of its new shows.

So, while the fall season officially starts September 20, Fox won't be debuting its Jennifer Love Hewitt-starring Party of Five spinoff, Time of Your Live, until late October.

Also debuting in mid-to-late-October will be the network's two new Friday-night dramas, the cop show Ryan Caulfield (what's with Fox and the Catcher in the Rye references, anyway? First Po5's Salingers and now this) and the latest Chris Carter paranoia, Harsh Realm.

Meanwhile, launching really late--perhaps trying to catch Friends in Yule rerun mode--will be the teen soap Manchester Prep. Coming even later--after the NFL season ends in January--will be the Doogie Howser-esque Sunday sitcom Malcom in the Middle.

"Lining them all up in the starting gate at the same time is an antiquated way of launching shows," Fox programming exec David Nevins explained to USA Today.

Fox programmers see other benefits, such as having more first-run ammo for those all-important sweeps months, as well as providing the promotions department with more time to plug each individual launch.

It's also believed that staggering the launch will decrease viewer confusion.

Finally, it gives the net room for some last-minute tinkering--last month, the Hollywood trades reported the Time of Your Live pilot needed a major overhaul before it was air-able.

In any event, after a miserable fall '98 that resulted in only one successful series launch (That '70s Show) and the resignation of programming chief Peter Roth, Fox is anxious to innovate its way into an advantage in the competitive market. The rest of the Big Four--ABC, NBC, CBS--will launch their stuff the old-fashioned way, all in late-September.

So what will Fox show in the meantime? Those reality-based specials that networks promised to do away with.