Sigh. FOX did it again. On Thursday (Nov. 6) afternoon after most East Coast reporters had left the office, the network sent out a new midseason schedule that basically scrapped everything FOX sold to advertisers in May.

For many online TV fans, the big news was the network’s decision to move Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse from Mondays to the dark wasteland of Friday. For most mainstream TV fans, the big news is the two-night, four-hour premiere of a little show called American Idol.

Looking at the January lineup objectively, it appears to strengthen FOX’s schedule on all five weekday evenings and should set the network up for yet another ratings crown. But it sure makes a mess of my DVR schedule.

Here’s my night-by-night analysis, including a read on Friday that’s a big more upbeat than what some pundits have said…

Mondays —
What this move tells me is that FOX is really antsy about 24, and with good reason. The show is coming off an 18-month leave of absence following a season of dipping ratings and dipping quality. FOX knows that the only way to keep that franchise healthy is to give it a legitimate lead-in and basically force people to stick around to watch Jack Bauer. Dollhouse was never going to be that lead-in, however optimistic FOX was about it at the upfronts. As brilliant as I can only hope and pray Dollhouse will be, it was always going to be a Joss Whedon show and it was always going to play to a niche audience, even before the reports of creative tinkering began circulating. Wedging that new show into one of TV’s most competitive hours was going to be death. House is down dramatically this season, but its 18-49 numbers are quite healthy and should combine with 24 for a very strong Monday for FOX.

Tuesday — I wish I could find Fringe better than mediocre. The season has consisted of a couple good episodes and a handful of episodes that felt like copies-of-copies of the ones before. But FOX is sticking by that show and coming after Idol, its ratings will presumably only go up. But how much improvement will be enough for FOX? And where will we find the ratings for Idol when it returns? Expect TV critics to write dozens of stories about how Idol was declining last season, dozens of stories about how the series may be in serious trouble, dozens of stories about how the new judge is a sign of creative desperation, dozens of stories about what the loss of Nigel Lythgoe will mean for the show’s creative team. Then 30 million people will watch the premiere. What this means is a frequently interrupted spring for Fringe. Idol is known to go two hours or 90 minutes fairly frequently. Has Fringe already developed a dedicated enough audience to withstand an erratic airing pattern? Get it? Pattern? Sigh.

Wednesday — FOX has been promoting the heck out of Lie to Me, pushing it basically as House with a criminal concentration instead of medical. Between the promotion and the time slot, the network must be happy with what they’ve seen. Personally, I’ll gladly watch Tim Roth be snarky for an hour a week. There has been some indecision in recent years with the Idol producers wavering between wanting to do half-hour or hour results shows. This season? No debate. Idol will go an hour, which will let the network use it as a launching pad for a drama, rather than as an unsteady platform for a bad sitcom.

Thursday —
After years of threatening to move Bones to Friday, this is the closest FOX has come. This side of House, Bones is FOX’s most solid show, both in terms of creative merits and an audience that has followed it wherever it has gone. If Bones can bring 85% of its audience with it from Wednesday, that would be a huge boon for FOX’s Thursday performance. Both Bones and Hell’s Kitchen should offer big improvements over FOX’s recent Thursday performances, probably making the network at least competitive with NBC in the 18-49 demo.

Friday — The Whedonverse is already in an uproar, all "Not again, FOX!" and "Woe is Joss!" and "We won’t get fooled again!" And don’t get me wrong, premiering the show on Friday the 13th (of February) is almost like a bad joke. But here’s the reality: Dollhouse could be the best show ever made and it would have gotten crushed in the Monday 8 p.m. time slot. Between Chuck, Gossip Girl and How I Met Your Mother/ Big Bang Theory, young viewers were already spoken for, as Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was finding out on a week-to-week basis. Throw in that ABC show where alleged celebrities allegedly dance and it was a recipe for disaster, especially since a slow start for Dollhouse would have doomed 24, which FOX wouldn’t have allowed, leading to an early cancellation. On Fridays, FOX can afford to be a smidge more patient, while the competition isn’t nearly as stiff, going up basically against Ghost Whisperer and MyNetworkTV’s wrestling. In addition, Dollhouse is paired with T:TSCC. Although most Terminator viewers would, correctly, tell you that the show has been really good for the past four or five episodes, the ratings have been dreadful, probably because of the myriad Monday 8 p.m. draws for young male viewers. Put on Friday, with an already-inked promise for a full season (not that that means much to FOX), Terminator can almost get a reboot and it’s excellently matched with Dollhouse. I’m not saying this is the best chance for Dollhouse to succeed — though maybe FOX will find a way to give it an Idol boost of some sort — but it may be its best chance not to fail quickly. I could be totally wrong on this hunch, of course.

Saturday — FOX likes its Saturday. Nothing will ever change.

Sunday — This is the only night of the schedule that isn’t improved. The Animation Domination lineup will do fine, but Hole in the Wall is a useless space filler in the 7 p.m. hour. It’s on the schedule because FOX has like 20 episodes in the can and they may as well air them somewhere. It’s unclear if FOX will be moving The Cleveland Show or Sit Down, Shut Up into the animation rotation at some point in the spring. Neither show was mentioned in FOX’s release.

That’s just how I figure it, though. What do you think?

Posted by:Daniel Fienberg