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<i>Malcolm</i> On Top

Think you know football? So who won the Super Bowl in 1996? 1998? 2001?

The answers, in order, are “Friends,” “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Survivor II: The Australian Outback” — series that received the prized postgame spot and enviable audience spillover.

Since the Super Bowl provides television's single biggest predictable audience, playing piggyback with the quarterbacks can mean extra ratings yardage for a show.

The debut episode of “Survivor II,” for example, aired after last year's Super Bowl and ended up scoring as the most popular entertainment program of the 2000-01 season.

“This is one you don't want to waste. It's golden ammunition,” said industry analyst Larry Gerbrandt of Kagan World Media.

Fox, home of Sunday’s Super Bowl, has anointed as the game's beneficiary “Malcolm in the Middle,” the sitcom about a genius kid and his endearingly loopy family.

A one-hour episode — with a mud-wrestling match between series star Jane Kaczmarek and Susan Sarandon among the highlights — will follow the New England Patriots-St. Louis Rams game.

How did Fox make the call?

“With a great deal of difficulty,” said network programming chief Gail Berman. “We had a lot of good, viable candidates for post-Super Bowl.”

Several factors tipped the contest toward “Malcolm.” The network wanted to showcase a program that dovetailed with a Super Bowl that — like many post-Sept. 11 events — will have a distinctly patriotic tone.

“We wanted to be supportive of that,” Berman said. “We wanted to make sure the whole Super Bowl experience was a tremendous family experience. And one of our favorite family shows is 'Malcolm.'”

Asked if she was lobbied heavily by other Fox series, Berman replied: “I don't know that I would go so far as to say lobbying. Many producers thought it would be a good idea to be post-Super Bowl,” sharing that view with her at parties and script meetings.

“Malcolm” had to be Berman's sentimental favorite. As then-president of Regency Televisio, which is co-owned by Fox, Berman developed the series before joining the network in 2000.

Expectations for “Malcolm” go beyond a one-time ratings pump. Expanding the “Malcolm” audience through Super Bowl exposure is the goal of Fox and the sitcom's creator and executive producer, Linwood Boomer.

The comedy does well among the advertiser-favored young demographic, but the numbers slip among older viewers. For the prime-time season so far, it's No. 1 among teen-agers, tied with “The Simpsons”, but is ninth among viewers age 18-34 viewers and 16th among those 18-49.

“We have a very large audience and very specific group of people, which thankfully the advertisers like,” Boomer said. “But the thing I've tried to do with this show is get whole families watching. We ty very hard to make a show where there's something for the parents to watch, the kids to watch, and hopefully we can broaden that even more.”

Of course, nothing is sure in the TV game, especially for an unproven player. For instance, NBC premiered “Homicide” after the 1993 Super Bowl. The gritty crime drama scored a healthy 17.9 rating and 31 share of audience. After that, in its regular time slot, “Homicide” went on to finish 99th for the season.

This year, as befits its proximity to a sports extravaganza, “Malcolm” is pulling out the stops. Besides Sarandon, other drop-in celebrities include model Heidi Klum, basketball great Magic Johnson and Bradley Whitford of “The West Wing,” Kaczmarek's real-life husband.

What's the plot?

“Let's see ... how do we arrange it so that Jane Kaczmarek and Susan Sarandon end up in a cat fight in the mud in front of 1,000 people,” replies Boomer, wryly.

Kaczmarek said it was a delight working with the Academy Award-winning Sarandon. The rest of the experience, smothered in faux Hollywood mud with plastic packing pieces added as texture, was memorable in its own way.

“One surprise was to have Susan Sarandon's muddy butt in my face, and the other was that there were packing peanuts all over,” said the breezily blunt Kaczmarek.

“Malcolm's” big play could end up fumbled, cautioned analyst Gerbrandt. “The fear is it's a blowout game ... What you want is a seesaw game, decided at the final second, so people hang around for the show,”

Kaczmarek, in any case, won't be among them.

“I stopped watching football when Vince Lombardi died (in 1970),” the Wisconsin native said, referring to the legendary Green Bay Packers coach. “The Super Bowl has very little sway for me. I'm going to a baby shower that day.”

Written By LYNN ELBER © MMII The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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