It had to happen sooner or later. On Tuesday, executives at the often-irreverent Fox Television Network did the unthinkable: They played it safe.
With the exception of trusting Sundays to a new, unproven sci-fi series called Space, Fox's fall addition of six comedies and two dramas looks _ gasp! _ almost conservative. So does the shrinking of reality dramas COPS and America's Most Wanted to a half-hour each in the fall.
Even Fox Entertainment president John Matoian noted the relative austerity in his network's decisions: "Our fall schedule is aggressive without being disruptive," he said in announcing the fall schedule.
Translation: Fox aims to be taken more seriously, and that means getting more serious. So while CBS scampers to find programing that will attract a younger audience, Fox will quietly seek out shows that could broaden its viewer base.
Space, considered by Fox to be its most ambitious sci-fi production yet, will follow a group of first-year military cadets into an intergalactic war. The new series from the producers of The X-Files will lead off the Sunday schedule at 7 p.m.
Most notable among the renewals is Party of Five, the critically acclaimed orphan drama. The return of the show, widely expected to be canceled _ it ranked 123rd of 140 prime-time series last season _ signals at least an implied commitment by Fox to stick with a quality program regardless of ratings.
Shifting slightly toward comedy, Fox canceled the sci-fi series Sliders and VR.5. Also dropped were Models Inc., M.A.N.T.I.S. and Medicine Ball, and the comedies Dream On, House of Buggin' and The Critic.
Trying a new strategy on Mondays, Fox will follow its hit soap Melrose Place with two new NBC-ish adult comedies: Partners, about an architect torn between his fiancee and his best friend, stars Tate Donovan and Jon Cryer (Pretty in Pink); Ned and Stacey gives Wings' Thomas Haden Church a lead role as an advertising executive who enters into an unusual marriage of convenience.
Thursday night staple Martin will move to Saturdays to anchor David Allen Grier's (In Living Color) new series, The Preston Episodes, about an English professor turned gossip journalist. In its place after Living Single will be Cabin Pressure, an ensemble comedy about flight attendants.
Sundays will bring two new sitcoms. One, Misery Loves Company, looks at divorce and marriage from the male perspective; the other, Too Something, a buddy comedy from the writing/acting team that made the independent film My Life's in Turnaround.
Risking its sci-fi stronghold on Fridays, Fox will replace VR.5 with Strange Luck, starring D.
B. Sweeney (Roommates) as a photojournalist who has suffered an unusual string of luck since surviving a plane crash as a child.
If those matches don't click, Fox has a handful of midseason replacements waiting in the wings. Among the most promising is the Aaron Spelling drama Kindred: The Embraced, featuring C. Thomas Howell as a detective who investigates a modern clan of vampires in San Francisco.
WB stirs things up
For an unknown network, the WB certainly has lined up programing from familiar faces and names.
There's Steven Spielberg's new animated series. ABC's canceled twin comedy Sister, Sister will move to WB (WTMV-Ch. 32) in the fall. And WB has snared Growing Pains' Kirk Cameron and Saturday Night Live comic Ellen Cleghorne.
Since its debut in January, the WB Network hasn't exactly caught fire. In fact, its entire lineup of four sitcoms came in as the worst-ranked shows of the year. Of the four, only Muscle was canceled. It will be replaced by Sister, Sister.
This fall, the network will launch its second night of programing on Sundays. Among the new series are:
Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky & The Brain, about the animated exploits of two laboratory mice. (7 p.m. Sundays)
The as-yet-unnamed family comedy featuring Cameron as a bachelor who must take over the parenting of his three younger siblings. (8 p.m. Sundays)
Simon, described as a "Forrest Gump-like tale" about an optimist in New York, from the creator of Mad About You. (8:30 p.m. Sundays)
An untitled Hispanic sitcom featuring comic Jackie Guerra and a female ensemble cast. (9 p.m. Sundays)
Cleghorne!, a comedy featuring the real-life family experiences of SNL's Cleghorne. (9:30 p.m. Sundays)
_ To reach Times TV critic Monica Yant, call 893-8521. To send e-mail: monicayantaol.com
New series are uppercased.
8 p.m. _ Melrose Place
9 _ PARTNERS
9:30 _ NED AND STACEY
8 p.m. _ The Fox Tuesday Night Movie
8 p.m. _ Beverly Hills, 90210
9 _ Party of Five
8 p.m. _ Living Single
8:30 _ CABIN PRESSURE
9 _ New York Undercover
8 p.m. _ STRANGE LUCK
9 _ The X-Files
8 p.m. _ Martin (new time)
8:30 _ THE PRESTON EPISODES
9 _ COPS (new time)
9:30 _ America's Most Wanted (new time)
7 p.m. _ SPACE
8 _ The Simpsons
8:30 _ TOO SOMETHING
9 _ Married ... With Children
9:30 _ MISERY LOVES COMPANY