Fox Hopes 'FiancÚ' Delivers Big Fat Win

January 5, 2004

At the midway point in the television season, the Fox network finds itself in a familiar position: In a deep hole, looking for a hero to ride up with a lifesaving lasso.

Last January, after Fox had suffered through a disastrous fall season, a hero did turn up, at precisely the right time to pull the network from its depths. His name was "Joe Millionaire," and, with audiences peaking at 40 million viewers, he (with a lot of help from a show called "American Idol") carried Fox off to great things in the second half of the season. Fox came within a whisker of overtaking NBC for its first outright win in the competition for the 18-to-49-year-old viewers that every network but CBS, which is owned by Viacom Inc., considers the benchmark for prime-time success.

Now, after a fall season made slightly less disastrous only because of strong ratings for post-season baseball, Fox is looking longingly toward another potential hero - though this one may be the antithesis of the hunky eligible bachelor.

The great Fox hope is "My Big Fat Obnoxious FiancÚ," a reality series that starts two weeks from tonight and aims to repeat the network's recent formula of turning comedy and cynicism into a prime-time hit.

Last year, with "Joe Millionaire,'' viewers ate up the concept of gold-digging young women throwing themselves at a man they had been misled into believing was wealthy. This time Fox, which is owned by the News Corporation, hopes viewers will be enticed to laugh at the misery endured by a female reality contestant and her family over the antics of her lout of a fiancÚ, whom she tells her family she met on a different reality show.

She will win big money if she can stay the course of the engagement and through to a televised wedding. But what she does not know is that the sloppy, rude-intended, and rowdy family he introduces as his own are actors, cast to make her own family horrified at the prospect of this union.

"We're in post-production now, and it looks good," said Michael H. Darnell, the executive vice president of alternative programming for Fox, and the man behind many of the network's previous reality hits, including "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire," "American Idol,'' "Joe Millionaire" and "The Simple Life."

"It's a very entertaining concept," said Mr. Darnell, who claimed credit for thinking it up himself while sitting on a beach during a vacation in Santa Barbara, Calif. The show clearly is an amalgam of elements from numerous other programs, including "The Bachelor" on ABC, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, the actor-filled reality concept of "The Joe Schmo Show" on Spike TV and even a comedy bit about an offensive fiancÚ that the comedian Jamie Kennedy has performed on his show on the WB network.

"Every one of these shows has elements of other shows," Mr. Darnell said. "But I think this one feels very new because of the stakes involved. It also has such an elaborate setup."

The concept is kicky enough that Fox is starting to feel a familiar gust of midwinter optimism.

"We don't know if Fat FiancÚ is going to reach the level of 'Joe Millionaire,' '' said Preston Beckman, the executive vice president of program planning for Fox Entertainment. "But with these reality shows, you never know."

Besides, Mr. Beckman argued, Fox finds itself in a more competitive position this season than last, when it was far behind all three of its rival networks. Now, thanks almost entirely to baseball, Fox is close to CBS for second place behind NBC in the 18-to-49 race - and much closer to NBC, which is a unit of the General Electric Company, than it was at this time last year.

But the other networks suggest that Fox's lineup of regularly scheduled nonsports programs is actually worse off than it was at this point last year.

Mr. Beckman acknowledges that Fox's regular programs have slumped, but he said: "Everybody's returning shows are off. That's not a Fox phenomenon."

Fox executives also note that with "American Idol" gearing up for what is generally expected to be another run to ratings glory, many Fox shows stand to benefit by being placed adjacent to editions of "Idol." Atop that list is the youth-oriented prime-time soap opera "The O.C.," which was already Fox's most promising new series.

"We could make up a lot of what we had with 'Joe Millionaire' last year with what we'll get from 'The O.C.' the rest of this season," Mr. Beckman said. He even made a prediction, saying, "When the season ends in May, we'll be right in it with NBC and CBS."

But being in it and winning it are entirely different things. Many television executives back in the early fall did not expect Fox to have expectations of being merely competitive this season, which the network entered riding a wave of confidence. Not only did Fox dominate the second half of last season, it was also being touted by a host of critics for developing the best set of new series for this season.

Added to that was a lineup of baseball playoffs that had magic written all over them, with the long-suffering Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs threatening to overcome almost 100 years of bad karma. As a potential Cubs-Red Sox World Series neared, a senior executive with a competing network declared the television season's battle for the 18-to-49 ratings crown over, saying baseball had made Fox unbeatable.

But like the Red Sox and Cubs, Fox faltered. (The network seems to have its own fall curse, maybe for having passed up "The Sopranos'' before it went to HBO?) This time, much of the regular schedule fell apart. "American Juniors," a spinoff of "American Idol" featuring child performers, was such a bust in the summer that a planned fall version was canceled. A scheduled comedy called "The Ortegas" never even made it to the air, repeating a seemly perennial Fox pattern. A new drama, "Skin," though highly praised by critics, was rejected almost instantly by viewers.