PASADENA, Calif. — Fox Broadcasting Co. is betting on cartoons to challenge NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
The network, which already relies on animation shows such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” to fill its Sunday night prime-time lineup, is upping its investment in the genre with a new late-night Saturday block of cartoons that will compete with “Saturday Night Live,” the reigning champ of weekend late-night TV.
“There is a lot of underserved audience there,” Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said Sunday at the winter TV press tour in Pasadena.
Reilly said he didn’t foresee dethroning “Saturday Night Live,” which he likened to a cultural institution, but added that the cartoon initiative had the potential to corral a significant chunk of the young male viewers.
Fox expects to debut the late-night block in January 2013, and it will feature four animated series from 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. (“Saturday Night Live” runs from about 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.).
This is not the first time Fox has tried to compete with “Saturday Night Live.” For years, it ran a comedy sketch show — “MADtv” — against “SNL.” More recently, it tried a variety show with comedian Wanda Sykes that failed to gain traction.
Although Fox is coming off a fall season that saw the network’s prime-time audience jump 17 percent thanks to its comedy “New Girl” and the musical talent show “The X Factor,” the network has tough decisions in the weeks ahead.
Tops among them is the fate of “Terra Nova,” the drama about a family that travels to prehistoric times to save the future. Although “Terra Nova,” which finished its 13-episode run last month, delivered decent numbers, it is expensive, making a second season no slam dunk.
Reilly said a decision will be made in the next several weeks on the show’s fate. The decision needs to be made earlier than usual because the show shoots in Australia and takes a long time to produce. Reilly did acknowledge having had issues with the show creatively.
Another show awaiting its fate is “House,” the long-running medical drama starring Hugh Laurie. Fox’s deal for “House” expires after this season, and the show’s ratings have dropped sharply over the last few years.
As for “The X Factor,” which was created by and features former “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell, Reilly said it would undergo changes when it returns this fall, but he declined to elaborate. The show delivered strong numbers, but not as big as Fox had hoped for or Cowell had promised.
Speculation has been rampant that one of the big changes will be the replacement of the show’s host, Steve Jones. Asked specifically about Jones, Reilly said “the hosting gig as we know it is a much harder job than meets the eye,” adding that everyone now has a new appreciation of the value of Ryan Seacrest, the host of “American Idol.”
Seacrest’s contract as host of “American Idol,” for which he gets $10 million per season, expires in May. But Reilly declined to talk about negotiations to keep Seacrest tied to “American Idol.”
Seacrest, who also fronts a popular radio program and produces numerous reality shows, including E!’s “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” has also been mentioned as a potential replacement for Matt Lauer as an anchor of NBC’s morning show “Today.”
Part of Fox’s cartoon bid will feature the launch of a digital platform to showcase the new programming. The digital channel Fox plans to unveil this year will be available via the Web, mobile phones, game consoles and video-on-demand but not as a cable network.
Fox has tapped Nick Weidenfeld, a former head of program development for Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” animated block, to oversee the new alternative animated content unit.
Fox has been toying with launching a new animation-only cable channel but needs to wait until it reacquires rerun rights to its long-running hit “The Simpsons” so Homer and the gang can be used as a backbone for such a network.
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