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Fox's '24' returns in shorter form, tailored for today's TV habits

By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fearless counter terrorism agent Jack Bauer returns to TV on Monday after a four-year absence as Fox revives Emmy-winning thriller "24" in a limited-run series, a format the network bets is better tailored for today's viewing habits.

As audiences shift toward recording shows to watch later on digital video recorders and have less patience for committing to months-long traditional TV series, Fox believes a short run of "24: Live Another Day" will encourage viewers to skip the DVR and watch the show as it airs.

The rebooted "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland as Bauer, will be told in 12 episodes, half the length of its preceding eight seasons.

That is a formula inspired in part by cable television's ability to draw respectable ratings by cutting the length of a show's season, said Joe Earley, chief operating officer of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc's Fox Broadcasting arm.

"It was clear the audience could not only commit to that run, but that also in between they would be able to catch up in their busy lifestyles and VOD (video on demand) and DVR choices. There's a nice palatable number of 10 to 12 episodes," Earley said.

"24: Live Another Day," which also stars Mary Lynn Rajskub as Bauer's sidekick, Chloe O'Brian, picks up as Bauer re-emerges years after he was forced to go underground for being wanted by both the United States and Russia.

The frenetic thriller in which each episode represents an hour in one day, attracted viewers as one of TV's top shows from 2001 to 2010, as Bauer raced against a ticking clock to foil plots through guile, guns, gadgets, fists and controversially, torture.

It won 20 Emmy Awards during its eight-season run, including best drama series, Sutherland for best actor in a drama series, and best writing for a drama. At its peak in 2006, "24" drew nearly 14 million viewers on average.

LIVE SPORTS IDEAL

A major appeal for networks to draw audiences to watching live is that later viewing on DVR has less value to advertisers.

By limiting a series to fewer episodes, it can create an event-like draw akin to a sporting event or awards show, TV's most-watched programs, said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and research director for media firm Horizon Media.

"You want to sit and watch it in real-time, you want to talk about it on social media," Adgate said. "The ads can't be zapped. There's a tremendous amount of upside."

Networks have also tried their hands at special live programing and limited-run series to draw in viewers.

CBS' supernatural drama "Under the Dome," which will return in June, led all scripted series in average viewers last summer with about 12 million an episode.

Fox's own cable network FX recently launched the event series "Fargo," starring Hollywood actors Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, as a reimagining of the Oscar-winning 1996 film. It drew a respectable 2.7 million viewers live, but added 1.8 million in DVR viewers over a three-day span.

NBC has had its own luck with the format, attracting 19 million viewers to watch its live production last year of "The Sound of Music," starring singer Carrie Underwood.

It will follow up with a live production of "Peter Pan" later this year and the horror miniseries "Rosemary's Baby" this month, an adaptation of the Ira Levin book that Roman Polanski brought to the big screen with Mia Farrow in 1968.

"24" executive producer Evan Katz believes that since the show began in 2001, viewing habits have changed to the point where committing to watch 24 episodes on a week-by-week basis could be too much to ask from an audience.

"I also think it is more special," Katz said on a media conference call about reviving "24" as a limited-run series.

"It's not going to happen all the time. It's not taking place over a year. This is a chunk of time. And it gives the network the opportunity to put more oomph behind its launch."

(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Peter Cooney)

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