Fox is in a jam. Can one little sitcom possibly save a troubled network?

By Dan Snierson
Updated February 18, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Poor Fox. This was supposed to be one of the network’s finest seasons in years. A euphoric buzz resounded furiously off Jay Mohr’s acerbic sitcom, Action. Intense curiosity surrounded a creepy new drama from Chris Carter, Harsh Realm. And let’s not forget that the lovely Jennifer Love Hewitt was starring in a Party of Five spin-off, Time of Your Life. But as soon as the 1999-2000 TV campaign kicked off, Fox went from network on the rise to network in demise. Time of Your Life? Tanked. Harsh Realm? Yanked. Action? Totally blanked. Three other rookies were also pulled, including one (Manchester Prep) that was canceled before it had aired even once…

We interrupt this tragic story with a late-breaking bulletin: Thanks to punky new comedy Malcolm in the Middle — a nutty, dysfunctional-family tale told by a brainy 11-year-old (Frankie Muniz) — Fox is alive and, well, breathing a sigh of ratings relief. The series netted 22.4 million viewers on Jan. 9, making it the second-highest-rated debut in Fox history, behind The Simpsons, and it has averaged nearly 20 million folks over three more original Sunday episodes, making it Fox’s highest-rated show. After ABC MVP Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (which averages roughly 30 million viewers per episode), Malcolm looks to be this season’s surprise network zeitgeist hit, spurring overheated talk that it could revive the ailing sitcom genre and reverse Fox’s ugly slide. “Forget about it saving a network,” jokes Fox Broadcasting Entertainment president Doug Herzog. “Can it save my job?”

Perhaps. Which is quite a feat for a show that last year kicked around Hollywood unwanted — a show that even UPN abandoned in development. “People had said that the family sitcom was dead, so they didn’t want to touch it,” notes Malcolm coexecutive producer Al Higgins. “Doug jumped on it. He was like, ‘I want to do this!'” The network was then wise enough to temper its excitement with patience. Instead of rushing Malcolm to air, Fox nurtured the show’s good early word and rolled out a two-month, $4 million marketing effort, pumping the series during NFL Sundays.

While Malcolm’s phenomenal touchdown caught all by surprise, Fox execs insist they aren’t expecting a Millionaire-size miracle. “Malcolm is a 30-minute show that realistically can only be run once a week,” says Fox TV Entertainment chairman Sandy Grushow. “To even suggest that Malcolm is this network’s savior is unrealistic and unfair. Can it be a critically important building block to this network’s future? Absolutely. That’s the most we can hope for.”

Well, that and a solid time slot. Possibly taking a cue from the King of the Hill debacle (the ‘toon saw its ratings tumble when it was elbowed off Sundays), Fox, for now, plans to keep Malcolm where it belongs: on Sundays. Smart nonmove, says Tim Spengler, an exec VP at media-buying agency Western International Media: “Unless there’s a tailor-made time period [to move to], we applaud stability.”