Fox laughing at Thursday rivals

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Fox Broadcasting Co. is ready to join the fray on Thursdays in the fall.

The network announced a new comedy block featuring Brad Garrett and a reality project from Simon Cowell for the night during its "upfront" presentation to advertisers Thursday.

'Til Death, a sitcom with the former Everybody Loves Raymond star, and another half-hour comedy, Happy Hour, will launch in the Thursday 8-9 p.m. slots in the fall. American Idol judge Cowell's new reality series, Duets, also will get a four-week run on Thursday and Friday before the baseball playoffs arrive on Fox.

In all, three new dramas and two new comedies are joining a relatively stable schedule.

Fox president of entertainment Peter Liguori touted the network's expected win in the adults 18-49 demographic for the second consecutive season. And this time around, the network has been paced not by the strength of its fall baseball playoff coverage but by entertainment programming, which is up a collective 14 percent over the 2004-05 season, Liguori said.

"We're not about to take our foot off the gas," he said.

Fox's new Thursday lineup is just the latest entrant in a brutally competitive night that was dominated by NBC until Friends ended in 2004. Networks often charge higher rates because of an influx of ads touting the weekend's new movies.

NBC, now languishing in fourth place overall, moved its fledgling hit comedies, My Name Is Earl and The Office one hour ahead to 8 p.m. and scheduled a new series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, at 9 p.m.--the same slot where ABC is moving its Sunday hit Grey's Anatomy. CBS is holding firm except at 10 p.m., where Without a Trace is moving to Sunday to make room for the new James Woods legal series Shark.

The O.C., which will return at 9 p.m. Thursdays for its fourth season in November, will be scheduled after baseball again. Liguori said he expects the teen-skewing soap to hold up against new competition like Grey's."

"There's no doubt when ABC announced Grey's on Thursday, we took a step back," he said in a conference call with reporters before the presentation. "We had a brief discussion, but The O.C. has an incredibly loyal audience, and we believe that audience will be there."

The network promised to keep reruns of its serialized dramas to a minimum. "We'll have way [fewer] reruns than the competition," Liguori said.

Fox is getting dramatic on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Fox will open Monday with the sophomore year of Prison Break, followed by new conspiracy-thriller drama Vanished, about the disappearance of a US senator's beautiful young wife.

The new drama Standoff, about male and female hostage negotiators who are romantically linked, holds the 8 p.m. leadoff slot on Tuesday, followed by the return of red-hot medical drama House. The sophomore season of forensic-detective drama Bones opens Wednesday night in tandem with a new Jerry Bruckheimer drama, Justice, about prominent lawyers handling high-profile media-frenzy cases.

Friday is all reality, with Nanny 911 leading into Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy. The law remains laid down on Saturday with a double dose of Cops followed by America's Most Wanted: America Fights Back. The Sunday 7-8 p.m. hour is a swing slot that often absorbs football overruns. The Simpsons returns as always at 8 p.m., followed by the animated American Dad, which is moving up an hour from the 9:30 p.m. slot it had this season. Family Guy is back at 9 p.m., followed by the sophomore season of the live-action family comedy The War at Home.

"This kind of back-to-back animation will create better flow for our audience," Liguori said. Fox's schedule will undergo significant shifts in January, when American Idol returns with an hour-long Tuesday 8 p.m. performance show and a half-hour Wednesday 9 p.m. results show. 24 will return to Monday 9 p.m. for another marathon run through the rest of the season. It will be paired with Standoff at 8 p.m.

Following the Idol results show on Wednesday will be the return of comedy The Loop. Friday will shift to scripted drama in January, with Bones moving to 8 p.m. and newcomer The Wedding Album, about a wedding photographer, scheduled at 9 p.m.

Liguori said he has high hopes for the gamble with comedies on Thursday.

"This is a strong comedy block that is going to kick off the night," he said.

On the midseason front, Mark Burnett and Steven Spielberg are sitting on the bench with the previously announced reality series On the Lot. One more sitcom, The Winner, awaits a midseason slot.

No upfront is complete without a moment of outrageousness, which came courtesy of Garrett. The former Raymond trouper scorched a few fellow TV stars with a quick stand-up set, opening with a nod to his former network.

"I'm just grateful to be on a stage where I don't have to kiss Ray Romano's ass," Garrett quipped.

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