James Hibberd
October 21, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

While other networks hustle to build buzz for their new fall shows, Fox caused an uproar last week simply by not airing Zooey Deschanel‘s freshman comedy New Girl.

After only three episodes, the new hit, averaging 11.2 million viewers, has a strong enough following that Fox’s decision to put it on break until Nov. 1 to make room for postseason baseball and two-hour airings of The X Factor had fans crying foul. The plan makes sense (it means fewer New Girl repeats overall and prevents the show from getting moved around), but the tempest in a Pepsi cup was an eye-opener for Fox, which also saw last Wednesday’s Factor get bumped due to an MLB game’s rain delay. ”It’s not the way we would want to choreograph this thing,” says Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly. ”But I’d be far more paranoid right now if I felt like these shows were teetering on the edge.”

Postseason baseball is Fox’s annual gamble; it can boost fall numbers with the right teams (such as 2009’s Yankees vs. Phillies) or disrupt a schedule (like, say, now). The stakes have arguably never been higher: Until Glee launched two years ago, Fox was a slow starter — modest in the fourth quarter, then rushing from behind to win the season (seven in a row and counting) after American Idol returned in January. This fall the network currently rivals CBS for front-runner status in the crucial adult 18-49 demographic and is the only network to have improved its ratings in that demo compared with last year.

Yet some of Fox’s victories have come with high price tags. While New Girl is inexpensive, sci-fi adventure Terra Nova (a reported $4 million per episode) and Simon Cowell‘s The X Factor ($3.3 million an episode, according to Cowell, although other sources say closer to $2.5 million) might be the most expensive first-year shows ever launched in their respective genres. And both pull smaller audiences than analysts expected given their prerelease hype.

In the case of The X Factor, which has averaged 13 million viewers, the payoff could be worthwhile, particularly if the show can grow. Factor has handed Fox a ratings win in the 18-49 demo every Thursday night, the evening most coveted by advertisers, and the network expects Factor could draw a larger audience in a presumed second season (just like Idol and Factor‘s U.K. version).

The Steven Spielberg-produced Terra Nova likewise has a high bar for success, and its performance has been somewhat disappointing despite its ambitious Lost Jurassic Avatar concept. The show needs to more or less maintain its out-of-the-gate average of 10 million viewers to continue beyond this season’s 13 episodes.

”In both cases, they were particularly big commitments, and I’d do them again tomorrow,” Reilly says. ”More than ever, we need to earn the audience and make a show that’s worth their time. That’s not necessarily correlated to dollars. It’s about boldness of conceit and execution. No one will have to hide their head on any of these, and there’s evidence right now of success.”

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