Fox Broadcasting Co. is betting on cartoons to challenge NBC's "Saturday Night Live."
The network, which already relies on animation to fill its Sunday night prime-time lineup, is getting even more invested in cartoons with a new Saturday block of cartoons that will compete with "Saturday Night Live," the reigning champ of weekend late-night TV.
Calling "Saturday Night Live" an institution, Reilly said he had no dreams of dethroning it with cartoons, but that he thinks there are young men out there that the network can grab for itself.
"There is a lot of under-served audience there," Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said of the decision to try programming late night on Saturdays. Fox expects to debut the late-night block in January 2013, featuring four animated series from 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. "Saturday Night Live" runs from 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 -- "Mad TV" -- against "SNL." More recently, it tried a variety show with comedian Wanda Sykes that failed to gain traction.
The network, which made the announcement of the new programming effort Sunday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, is also going to launch a digital platform to showcase cartoons.
Noting how much animation Fox produces for its Sunday night lineup, Reilly said one of the high-class problems of that strategy has been a lot of development that couldn't get a home in prime time.
The digital channel Fox plans to launch later 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.
Although Fox is coming off a fall television season that saw the network's prime-time audience jump 17% thanks to its comedy "New Girl" and the musical talent show "The X Factor," the network still has some tough decisions in the weeks ahead.
Tops among them is the fate of "Terra Nova," the drama about a family that travels back to prehistoric times in an effort to save the future. While "Terra Nova," which finished its 13-episode run last month, delivered decent numbers it is very expensive, making a second season no slam dunk.
Reilly said a decision on "Terra Nova," which needs to be made earlier than usual because the show shoots in Australia and takes a long time to produce, in the next several weeks. He did acknowledge having had some issues with the show, creatively.
Another show awaiting its fate is "House," the long-running medical drama starring Hugh Laurie. Fox's current 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 stars former "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell, Reilly said the show would undergo changes when it returned next fall but declined to elaborate. The show delivered strong numbers, but not as big as Cowell had promised and Fox was hoping to deliver to advertisers.
There has been a lot of speculation that one of the big changes next season 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 was also a subject of discussion during Reilly's session with critics. Seacrest's contract as host of "American Idol," for which he gets $10 million per season, expires in May. Reilly declined to talk about negotiations to keep Seacrest tied to "American Idol." Seacrest, who also hosts a popular radio program and produces numerous reality shows including E!'s "Keeping up with Kardashians," has also been mentioned as a potential replacement for Matt Lauer as an anchor of NBC's morning show "Today."
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-- Joe Flint
Photo: Fox's Kevin Reilly in 2009. Credit: Frank Micelotta / Fox