Why the Super Bowl won't cure what's ailing Fox

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Tentpole sporting events are artificially inflating the network's numbers, which could mean a disappointing upfront.

On paper, the traditional primetime ratings for Fox’s first season in 15 years without "American Idol" look relatively consistent. "Dominated and disrupted by this crazy election, it was a challenging time for all the networks," said Gary Newman, Fox Co-Chairman & CEO at the recent Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. "On the back of a truly classic World Series that exceeded the dreams of even the most diehard Cubs fans, we had our best fall ranking in five years. Fox finished in second place, up 5 percent (in adults 18-49), making us the only broadcast network to post year-to-year growth."

Of course, had Fox not been home to the seven-game Cubs-Indians matchup, Newman would have far less to be optimistic about.

Excluding sports, just one new series on Fox from last fall, dramedy "Lethal Weapon," has generated interest. "Empire" in season three, now on a three-month hiatus, continues to slip, while its replacement, drama "Star," is not the breakout hit the network was hoping for. Animated staples "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and "Bob’s Burgers" pale in comparison to earlier seasons. Live action comedies, particularly "New Girl" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," remain limited. "Gotham," like any superhero-themed fantasy drama, relies solely on the strength of social media for survival. Perennial benchwarmer "Bones" is coming to an end. Gordon Ramsay needs to take a season—or two—off. In sum, there are weaknesses aplenty across all seven nights of the week.

Whether the endless promos and the post-Super Bowl debut on Sunday for "24: Legacy," a Sutherland-free reboot of the beloved franchise, drives interest remains to be seen. After all, "only ‘Lethal Weapon’ and, to a smaller degree, ‘Star’ seemed to benefit from the World Series," said Robert Russo, President of RNR Media Consulting 

Through Jan. 22, the ratings on Fox (excluding the World Series) are actually down 5 percent in adults 18 to 49 (2.0 rating/7 share) and 2 percent in total viewers (6.30 million), according to Nielsen. Comparably, that places it fourth in viewers and tied (with CBS) for the distant No. 2 spot in the demo.

While that may appear to be a minor dip for now, the absence of "American Idol" would certainly result in steeper audience losses as the season progresses were it not for Super Bowl LI. But with an expected 110 million viewers poised to tune in for the New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons matchup on Feb. 5th, Fox’s PR mavens will be feverishly touting Fox as the hottest platform in town.

But let’s pause for a reality check: Should a network so heavily dependent on sports rather than its primetime lineup still be considered a serious contender for advertisers in the upcoming upfront season?

"Like any major event, the advantage of the Super Bowl or the World Series is the potential promotional opportunity," said Russo. "It is yet to been seen if The Super Bowl will help the new ‘24’ or anything new coming up on Fox in midseason."

"I think we have until May, when the upfront is here, to see if Fox is a just a sports-driven network at present, or are they really coming up with some quality programming that is going to warrant business by advertisers," he said.

In addition to "24: Legacy," Fox’s midseason lineup consists of three dramas ("APB," "Shots Fired" and the return of "Prison Break,") comedy "Making History," and competition show "Kicking & Screaming."

It also recently debuted "The Mick," a sitcom, and "My Kitchen Rules," another competition show. 

Who knows? Maybe the next "Idol" is looming in there somewhere. If so, the Murdochs’ baby could look pretty healthy come May.  

"If there is interest in the next roster of new programs, Fox will be able to go into the upfront with the momentum of saying that the network is for real," said Bill Carroll, Senior Vice President and Director of Content Strategy at Katz Television Group. "Fortunately for Fox, it still has three months to play with, because right now, aside from ‘Empire,’ it really is sports carrying the network."