Crazy like a Fox

You know who I like? The Fox network. They’ve got moxie over there. Maybe it’s because they know most people don’t take them seriously, and maybe they don’t take themselves too seriously. Whatever the reason, they’ve made excellent programming choices lately, and I like their style.

First, there’s “24,” one of the best shows currently on the air. When it debuted in 2001, its ratings were tepid. Many more panicky networks would have canceled it, especially considering how expensive it is to produce. Not Fox. Fox kept with it, hoping the audience would grow, and knowing that the viewers it did have were devoted. Now, in its third year, it does solidly in the ratings and is a trendy, “water-cooler discussion” show — EVEN THOUGH most offices no longer have water-coolers.

Then look at “Arrested Development,” a new show that’s part of the Sunday lineup and that is, along with “The Simpsons” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” why Fox has the funniest night on television. “AD” is hysterical, full of dry, caustic wit and wonderfully funny characters. It had endless praise heaped upon it by TV critics, most of whom also predicted that it was so smart, people wouldn’t watch it. And they were right. Its ratings are about a third of what “The Simpsons” gets, and about half of what “Malcolm in the Middle” (its immediate lead-in) gets.

But guess what? Despite the poor ratings, Fox has signed it up for a full season. Why? Because they know it’s a good show, and they want to find ways to attract viewers to it before giving up and canceling it.

Then there’s “The O.C.” What a delightfully stupid show this is! I adore it. Approximately half of it is honest-to-goodness good television (mostly when Adam Brody is on the screen as smart-mouthed Seth Cohen), and the other half is just dumb teen-angst fun. All together, it’s an hour of giddy entertainment.

After its early run on Tuesdays in the late summer, where it met with ratings success, Fox’s plan was to take it away for a month while baseball finished up, then bring it back on Thursdays. Fans were upset: They knew anything airing on Thursdays would fail against the juggernaut of NBC’s shows and the very popular “CSI” on CBS. “The O.C.” would get bad ratings, and Fox would cancel it. We could see it coming a mile away.

So Fox listened to its viewers, switched it to Wednesdays, and now it’s doing just fine.

The latest example of Fox’s smart attitude is with “Joe Millionaire 2,” a bad idea for a sequel that has done pitifully in the ratings. Fox’s reaction? To admit they were wrong, and that “Joe Millionaire 2” sucks.

“Our instincts told us from the very beginning that ‘Joe Millionaire’ was a one-time stunt, and I think we got greedy,” said Fox entertainment chairman Sandy Grushow in an Associated Press story earlier this week. “We tried to sneak it by the American public a second time and we got called on it.”

How cool is that? Any other network would have made excuses. “It just hasn’t found its audience.” “It was competing against a strong baseball playoff season.” “Its lead-in was bad.” “It’s President Bush’s fault.” Fox owns up to the mistake, and I admire that.

Granted, Fox has done some awful things, too, including dumping “Futurama” in a terrible time slot, preempting it with football half the time, never promoting it … and then wondering why it had poor ratings. There’s the shameful shuffling around of “Family Guy,” too, with the same end result. But lately, I like how they’re handling themselves. You get the impression they’re interested in the quality of their shows, not just in ratings, which is a rare attitude indeed.