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That global focus helped bring “American Idol” to Fox from the U.K. in June 2002, but not before Fox found itself on shaky ground, said Gail Berman, its programming head from 2000-05.

“When I came in, the network was not in particularly good shape,” she recalled, with then-News Corp. President Peter Chernin cautioning her that she had to boost company morale along with ratings (although Fox had reached No. 1 with teenagers and adults 18 to 34).

“Having been the fourth network, there was a sense that being at the bottom of the barrel was an OK place to be,” Berman said. “We built a great team of people that could really change the culture of `When Animals Attack’ to the culture of `American Idol.’”

In her tenure at Fox, the network also found a new measure of scripted success, with “24” and “The O.C.” among the hits, and new peer respect. In 2005, Fox earned 49 Emmy Award nominations, the most in its history, including 11 nods each for “24” and the critically acclaimed “Arrested Development,” which the year before won the Emmy for best comedy series.

But it was the next wave of reality _ “American Idol” and the talent contest genre _ that put the ratings into orbit.

Mike Darnell is a key part of Fox’s culture, past and present. Among Fox’s longest-serving executives and currently president of alternative entertainment, with “Idol” part of his portfolio, his network bio proudly lists “previous hits” including “World’s Wildest Police Chases” and “World’s Most Amazing Medical Oddities.”

He hasn’t, and won’t, apologize for that brand of shows. With apparent glee, he recalls how they were routinely branded by critics as “the end of Western civilization, sleazy and low-brow.”

But such programming helped bolster the network in the 1990s, he said, and proved widely influential. After Fox blazed the trail, NBC aired “Fear Factor” and “Dog Eat Dog,” ABC fell into the arms of “The Bachelor” and “Wife Swap,” and CBS turned to “Big Brother.” The progeny of “American Idol” include NBC’s “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent,” and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

So far, nobody has done it quite like Fox. While relatively staid CBS is the most-watched network, Fox ended last season with its seventh ratings victory in a row among young adults and with “American “Idol” the most-watched series for the eighth straight year.

In advance of the 2011-12 TV season, Fox brought in $2.2 billion in sponsor commitments which, for all the networks, totaled $9.25 billion, according to AdWeek. Leader CBS, by comparison, had $2.65 billion in early ad buys.

Fox’s future is clouded by the same issues confronting the rest of cable and broadcast TV: an aging audience and a crowded media environment in which the Internet and other options compete for attention.

Even standard-bearer “American Idol,” although still a top-rated show, has seen its eroding viewership drop by 25 percent this year and its median audience age climb to 50, analyst Adgate said. Fox newcomer “The X Factor” is scrambling to revamp its casting after a disappointing first season, while the Jennifer Lopez-Marc Anthony talent show “Q’Viva!” drew paltry ratings and was bumped from prime-time to late-night Saturday.

(Parent News Corp. has its own serious burdens, stemming from the phone hacking scandal involving Murdoch’s U.K. newspaper company News International. More than 100 lawsuits have been filed against the subsidiary and an official British investigation is continuing.)

But Fox isn’t ceding ground. “Glee” and “New Girl” are young viewer draws And this month, in collaboration with Fox Sports, the network launched a new tactic for long-ignored Saturday night, a mix of sports programming that’s set to include NASCAR races, college football and Major League Baseball games and Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts.

“Of course, all networks mature,” Darnell said. “But it’s not about the network, it’s about new programming. It’s our nature to try to reinvent … We usually start it, and someone else imitates us.”

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