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'Terra Nova' series a high priority at Fox

The start of a new television season is akin to a meteor shower.

Shows come flying out of nowhere, lighting up the sky and screaming for attention. Most crash to Earth or simply disintegrate, causing mass confusion among viewers, many of whom flee for more stable ground.

Traditionally, dinosaurs haven't fared well with meteors. But Fox is betting that "Terra Nova," its highly anticipated new program about a family that travels from the year 2149 to prehistoric times as part of a group trying to save the planet, can survive the craziness that is the fall television season.

The show, which counts Steven Spielberg as executive producer, is scheduled for a two-hour premiere Sept. 26, right in the thick of the opening of the new season.

The following week it's slated to settle into its hourlong time slot beginning at 8 p.m. and will serve as a lead-in to the medical drama "House."

Given that it has been delayed twice and is shaping up to be expensive -- it shoots in Australia, is loaded with special effects and the first episode alone cost more than $15 million -- it is an understatement to say Fox has a lot riding on "Terra Nova."

"This is definitely one of our highest priorities for the fall," acknowledged Joe Earley, the network's president of marketing.

While hoping to attract the sci-fi crowd and young males, Fox is gambling that "Terra Nova" can be that rarest of television shows: a broad-based hit that families will watch together.

Internally, the show has been dubbed "Little House on the Prairie With Dinosaurs."

Fox doesn't even like it referred to as a science-fiction show, preferring instead to call it an "epic family drama." Family shows are increasingly rare on television as audiences have become progressively more fragmented in the digital age.

"If we can get people to buy into this family, then we have a shot," said Preston Beckman, Fox's head of scheduling. "If it's dinosaur of the week, we'll never have a shot."

Because the casualty rate for new shows is so high, networks often try to protect ambitious projects until after the smoke has cleared and the early fatalities of the season have been carted off.

Fox, however, is eschewing a safe approach, marching right into the thick of battle -- a bold move that warns other networks to get out of the way.

"We don't close our eyes and roll the dice," said Beckman when asked whether it might be better to delay the launch of "Terra Nova." "We think we're doing it the right way."

Beckman wouldn't say what kind of audience "Terra Nova" needs for Fox to consider it a success, but he predicted that "a good 40 percent will watch on some sort of delayed basis."

Fox will use a doubleheader of NFL football on Sept. 25 (assuming the lockout has been resolved) and the premiere of its Sunday-night animated lineup to hype "Terra Nova's" first episode.

Fox is trying to build excitement about the show without giving too much away. It has screened the first hour for a handful of critics but won't release pictures from the show that include the dinosaurs yet.

"Terra Nova" will be screened at Comic-Con, the fanboy convention that is often used by networks and movie producers to generate buzz for new shows and films.

Besides the road trip to Comic-Con and constant commercials for "Terra Nova" on the network, Fox is also targeting families and kids by promoting the show in museums, zoos and theme parks across the country.

Trailers for the show have appeared at screenings of "X-Men: First Class" and "Super 8" and will also be screened before the next "Harry Potter" movie, which opens Thursday at midnight.

"We can sell dinosaurs to one audience, time travel to another and a family drama to another," Earley said.



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