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Two McBeals Are Better Than One

Blame this all on the Dodgers.

A little over a year ago, sinister tycoon Rupert Murdoch took another step toward his goal of owning the parts of the Earth not covered by water when he bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for kajillions of dollars. As the new apple in the Fox eye, the Dodgers needed to win ballgames and win them fast. So Murdoch, through his designated henchmen, overhauled the Dodger roster, casting out the overpaid, underachieving players with those who were paid even more and achieved even less.

As of this writing, the new and improved Fox Dodgers are just a game over .500 and falling further behind the San Francisco Giants, a ballclub that pays its players in pesos, food stamps, and gum. The price of Rupert's folly? The Dodger payroll will come in at around $80 million this year.

That may seem like chump change when we're talking about sinister tycoons, but even Rupert Murdoch's pockets aren't deep enough to pay Carlos Perez a couple of million dollars only to see him run up a 6.63 ERA. No, that money has to come from somewhere, and, with it costing $200 million these days just to make a movie about a boat sinking, it's sure not going to be cut out of the movie studio's allowance.

So Doug Herzog and the rest of the gang over at the Fox Network better start clipping coupons and rummaging through the sofa for loose change. Because it's bargain hunting time at Fox, enough to make belt-tightening network executives long for the comparatively lavish days of Beans Baxter and Duet.

Fox's renewed devotion toward doing things on the cheap runs heavy throughout its 1999 schedule. Think Fox nowadays, and you think of two things: emaciated Boston lawyers and grotesquely fat cartoon characters. Keep thinking about them. You'll be seeing more of them this fall.

First, the animation. The Fox of fall '99 has finally found what to do with its plethora of animated fare. Proving there's some justice in the world, Matt Groening's Futurama has snagged the tony spot between The Simpsons and the last season of The X-Files. That displaces Family Guy, featuring the fattest, most loutish cartoon dad to come along since -- uh, Homer Simpson. Family Guy will anchor Fox's beachhead on Thursday night, proving that all the networks can smell the blood in the water in NBC's section of the pool.

The short end of the animated stick goes to the underappreciated King of the Hill, which is being returned to Sunday nights, but at 7:30, opposite 60 Minutes and Dateline NBC. But at least the 7:30 slot makes King a strong lead-in to The Simpsons. Pity the live-action Malcolm in the Middle, stuck with the 7:00 slot and the strong likelihood it will be pre-empted out of existence by overruns of Fox's NFL football coverage in the East.

The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy and King of the Hill are all, to varying degrees, well-done shows. But, more importantly to Fox, they can also be made for a lot less money than you have to dole out to the likes of Sue Costello, only to see her program nose dive three episodes into its run.

No, with animation, all you need is a couple of bucks for ink, a few shekels to throw at actors to do the voice-overs and maybe a couple of Arby's coupons to keep the writers at bay. Anyone starts squawking for more money, and you just can them in favor of some old Top Cat reruns.

Now, to Ally McBeal, the gaunt crown jewel in David E. Kelley's TV crown. Ally McBeal remains in her Monday night time slot, but there's a fascinating twist to this story. As everyone knows, Ally McBeal is an hour-long show that's more a comedy than a drama, a puzzling, genre-bending concept to grizzled TV veterans who like their dramas long and their comedies in 24-minute chunks.

For those people -- and, one would assume, for everyone with short attention spans -- Fox presents Ally, the 30-minute sitcom. We kid you not. On Tuesday nights at 8:00, Ally McBeal will run in 30-minute format, featuring new footage, unused footage, and footage taken from the full-length episodes.

It sounds crazy... but it just might work. At the very least, Fox manages to get 90 minutes of programming for roughly the cost of an hour. It gets some more mileage out of one of its hit shows. And, most importantly, it gets a chance to sell Ally McBeal to an audience who might not have accepted it in its original form. To that end, apparently this new Ally will start where the original series started, a-way back two years ago. And that means that, even if Fox cancelled Ally McBeal at the end of next year, they'd have half-hour Allys to last 'em until 2007.

And let's not forget that in syndication, half-hour series sell much better than hour-long series. This explains why one of my local stations refuses to air sitcoms in any way other than two at a time, meaning I can see the entire run of Friends in about three weeks.

If this new format catches on, Fox and Kelley may be able to sell Ally McBeal twice -- once in hour-long format to a cable station, once in half-hours to local TV. And that might produce enough cash for Rupert to go out and buy himself a catcher that can hit better than .250.

(News item: Fox Family Channel appears interested in buying the rights to Ally McBeal. Which makes sense. After all, what better place to show a series with themes running the gamut from hookers to sexual fetishes to premarital sex to infidelity to Starbucks-foam-as-aphrodisiac than a family cable channel founded by Pat Robertson?)

Fox's new business model is sound: get the most you can out of what you have. Witness the Party of Five spin-off Time of Your Life, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. It will air right before Ally McBeal -- the one-hour version, for those of you scoring at home. Time of Your Life figures to be a big hit among Party of Five fans, young viewers and sad, lonely men.

Likewise, Fox will allow Chris Carter to retain control of Friday nights at 9 p.m., a time slot he's owned for six years now. But the morose Millennium is gone -- and, darn it, just before the Millennium, too! That's got to sting.

In its place is Harsh Realm, a series about military men and a virtual-reality world. I'd say that I trust Carter from his work on X-Files, but I said that three years ago about Millennium. Now I'm left just wishing that Carter has learned his lesson from Millennium and will generate a show that's more funny and exciting than dark and depressing.

Having given up on silly sci-fi for the kids -- VR 5, Sliders, The Visitor, and many others -- as a lead-in to Carter's time slot, this fall Fox will offer Ryan Caulfield, a drama about a young policemen. The theory, apparently, is to reach all the men who've sneaked into the back bedroom to avoid watching Providence with their ladyfriends.

Remember when I said there was blood in the water? Fox's answer is to tear up NBC with Manchester Prep, a series based on the movie "Cruel Intentions," which was itself based on "Dangerous Liaisons." Think Dawson's Creek, only really, really, bitchy. Viewers under 30 need not apply. That's followed by Family Guy at 9, and a new insidery Hollywood-flavored comedy, Action, at 9:30. True to Fox's unique sense of decorum, Action will feature all the colorful language you've come to expect from shows airing on cable, only with the particularly vile words tastefully bleeped out.

Perhaps they can add this one to the Fox Family Channel lineup, too.

But any further discussion of Fox's fall plans is really quite silly. Because we know that by midseason, most of Fox's new series will be gone. In their place will be safer, more profitable series. A half-hour remix of Party of Five. An hour-long annotated version of the Simpsons, featuring explanations of all the jokes and references. A live-action King of the Hill with a laugh track. A magazine show with the cast of Ally McBeal as correspondents. And a David Kelley produced show where, every week, characters from two of his shows cattily interact with one another.

It'll be a gas! And, you know, much less expensive.


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