`Mr. President' earns niche in Fox Broadcasting's prime time

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Only a couple of minutes into ``Mr. President,'' you sense something a little different. The new situation comedy - which premi`ered Sunday on Fox Broadcasting - already has a satirical bite not often found in prime-time series on the big three commercial networks. A presidential candidiate (George C. Scott as Samuel Arthur Tresch) and his wife are talking in their bedroom. It's election eve, and she just can't help wondering what kind of president he'll make. ``The President of the United States should be a spectacular man, like my father,'' she notes. ``I'm not talking as your wife, but as an American citizen.'' Finally, her ludicrous deliberations over, she decides, ``I'm going to vote for you,'' as if reaching an agonizing decision.

In just those few lines the show has started a conjugal battle of the sexes - nothing new there - and then mixed it with election clich'es to produce a wryness and candor untypical of blander prime-time fare. The show does have to scale the office down to manageable sitcom proportions, but the public side of Tresch's life at least figures in the caustic comedy insights, and it brushes - sometimes with absurd results - against the couple's private life. The writing makes passes at themes of private and personal responsibility (though not topical subjects - it never mentions what party he's in). In one scene, for instance, Tesch asks Meg for the name of a man who made a pass at her. It's partly a comedy line, but you shiver a bit at its implication about power and its meaning for a man and his family.

The show is fortunate in having an actor like Scott to give the role the strength and personal depth it needs. It's as if the man were incapable of sliding totally into the big-three network mold. His gruffly likable Trumanesque figure - played with Spencer Tracy-like personal honesty - comes much closer to credibility than normally found in this genre.

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``Mr. President'' is the most recent of five half-hour series - all airing Sunday evenings (check local listings) - premi`ered within the past month by Fox Broadcasting, media-magnate Rupert Murdoch's so-called ``fourth network'': ``Married ... With Children'' (8 p.m.), ``The Tracey Ullman Show'' (8:30 p.m.), ``21 Jump Street'' (7 p.m.), ``Duet'' (9:30 p.m.), and now ``Mr. President.'' In addition, Fox carries ``The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers'' (Monday-Friday, 11 p.m.-midnight).

In many of these, you instantly recognize the formats and character types - conceptually they're cut from standard network cloth and seem to offer little sign of the truly innovative ``alternative'' programming some analysts have hoped a fourth network could offer. But the new series - especially the situation comedies, ``Married'' and ``Duet'' - are blunter, potentially offensive, and less homogenized and predictable.

The question media analysts are asking is whether the new shows will be enough for Fox to survive economically - much less to offer important competition to the big three. Fox - a satellite-delivered national program service - has some 115 stations (and counting) and owns several stations. It's been dubbed a ``fourth network'' partly because the shows it offers are carried as a regular evening's lineup by affiliates across the country, and because the shows run in time periods that put them head-on against the big three. Hopes for a fourth TV network have risen and faded over the years, but this is the first major effort of its kind in a long time.

It is generally considered a high-risk venture, however, coming at a time when TV itself faces problems: Audiences have shrunk; money from commercials is off; and home video is on the rise. Fox has far fewer affiliates than the big three, and many of them are UHF stations, which reach a smaller audience than the VHF affiliates of the big three. It will be a long haul for Fox to achieve the kind of viewership ratings that shows on the big three need to survive.

On the other hand, Fox has a much more streamlined operation than the big three, whose huge overhead leads to agonized periodic ``reassessments'' of the kind their news departments are undergoing right now. Fox has also added an extra minute of commercial time for each hour of program than the big-three nets. And its station lineup is growing.

It has also hired producers and writers with impressive track records, and the presence of a star of Scott's artistic stature argues for its ability to offer quality. Fox hopes some viewers may prefer a show like ``Duet'' - a sitcom about a detective-story writer and his girlfriend, a caterer - to more sedate big-three material. The plotlines in ``Duet'' are sometimes explicit, and the dialogue contains more pointed gags. Its characters are more outspoken, its pace more breathless. It plays around with words in a way that sometimes suggests a stage comedy, although it's decidedly in the good old sitcom mode.

On May 30, Fox will begin its Saturday evening schedule with the premi`eres of ``Werewolf,'' promoted as an ``action/horror series; and ``The New Adventures of Beans Baxter,'' a sitcom starring Jonathan Ward and Elinor Donahue about a high school student accidentally caught up in the world of espionage. The other two Saturday-night entries premi`ere June 6: ``Down and Out in Beverly Hills,'' a sitcom based on the feature film, about a nouveau riche family; and ``Karen's Song,'' starring Patty Duke in the story of a 40-year-old woman's relationship to a romantically inclined 18-year-old.

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