Past Deadline: 'Idol' dominates Fox TCA session

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PASADENA -- Fox entertainment president Peter Liguori faced down something of an angry mob Saturday morning during the final day of the Television Critics Assn.'s winter press tour, answering questions with great dexterity while tiptoeing through minefields involving "American Idol," O.J. Simpson and why his network tends to drop off the primetime radar in the fall and magically reappear in January.

First things first: the growing controversy surrounding the fact that the "Idol" judges -- Simon Cowell in particular -- have opened the show's sixth season by upping the quotient of nastiness when dealing with talent-challenged contestants who have no business being there in the first place.

"I think it's part of what makes 'American Idol' 'American Idol,' " Liguori said. "Let's face it, this show's been on the air for six years. And the judges have been critical for six years. Hundreds of millions of people have watched the show. Hundreds of thousands of auditions have occurred. People know what the show is about. ... I think the judges know what makes the show tick."

Indeed, it's a formula that continues to set ratings standards this season as consistently TV's most-watched series across all demographics. In tandem with the January premiere of "24," it turns the lights on at Fox bright enough to make the network No. 1 for the past two seasons in the top bragging-rights category of adults 18-49.

The problem, as Liguori acknowledged Saturday, are those pesky fourth quarters that make for an unacceptable Jekyll-and-Hyde situation.

"This is my second year at the network, and I just don't accept that that's the way it is," he said. "We have to have better shows in the fourth quarter." It also will help, Liguori believes, that Fox's lessened postseason Major League Baseball commitment will go next year from a maximum of 26 possible series preemptions to 14.

"The other networks don't have to deal with the baseball hiatus," he added. "The other networks don't have to deal with the fact that their circulation is at its highest in January. Again, we accept that. We're not going to change. We're not going to take 'Idol' and move it into the fall. We're not going to do two 'Idol' competitions per year."

The elephant in the room during the session was the inevitable Simpson question as scribes sought to grill Liguori about the embarrassing about-face of a Fox special that was to feature Simpson speculating on what was billed as a hypothetical scenario of his involvement in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman. Liguori kept steadfastly mum on the matter, apologizing and saying he was prevented legally from commenting because of pending and threatened litigation related to the companion "If I Did It" book that was to be published through News Corp.'s HarperCollins-based ReganBooks unit, which has since been shuttered by HarperCollins.

"I can't answer any O.J. questions," Liguori said. "I hope you appreciate the situation we all find ourselves in."

Liguori was much happier to talk about "The Simpsons" than that other Simpson. The indefatigable animated series is now in its record 18th season, and the network is planning to celebrate the show's 400th episode in May as well as the release of "The Simpsons Movie" in July. He believes the series is "as creatively fertile as it's ever been."

Liguori also confirmed plans to give a major boost to the struggling freshman comedy " 'Til Death," starring Brad Garrett, by moving it to the plum post-"Idol" Wednesday 9:30 p.m. slot as of March 14.

"The shows that have worked best after 'Idol' tend to be the broader shows. ' 'Til Death' is a pretty broad show, and it's getting broader," Liguori said. "We've added Margaret Cho. We've added Anthony Anderson. And creatively, we feel that the show actually is finding its footing with each and every episode."

Fox also will use "Idol" as a launching pad for David E. Kelley's midseason dramedy "The Wedding Bells," which will premiere after the reality juggernaut March 7 before moving to its regular 9 p.m. Friday slot March 9.

Another midseason series, the Rob Corddry-starring comedy "The Winner," will join Fox's Sunday lineup. It will premiere with two episodes, one at 8:30 p.m. and one in its regular 9:30 p.m. slot March 4. The animated comedy "American Dad," which airs in the Sunday 9:30 period, will go on hiatus for five weeks to make room for "Winner."

Taking a page from the "24" playbook, Fox's third midseason series, the race actioner "Drive," will launch with a two-night, three-hour premiere Sunday, April 15, at 8-10 p.m. and its regular Monday 8-9 p.m. period April 16. On Monday, "Drive" will replace "Prison Break," which will have wrapped it second season by then.

Meanwhile, the sophomore comedy "The War at Home," which began the season at 9:30 p.m. Sunday and now airs in a block with " 'Til Death" on Thursday," will go back to Sundays, this time at 7:30 p.m., starting March 4.

Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.

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