When 20th Century Fox announced in October 1985 that it was going to launch FOX, a fourth network in direct competition with powerhouses ABC, CBS and NBC, the channel was the laughing stock of the industry.
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NBC’s vice president of comedy programs, Garth Ancier, left the peacock network to begin work on the new, fledgling network. At the time, NBC head Grant Tinker told Ancier he was a huge mistake.
“I will never put a fourth column on my schedule board,” Ancier recalled Tinker telling him. “There will only be three.”
21 years later, after the network officially launched in 1986, FOX overtook CBS as the the most popular network in America. What started out as six small stations broadcasting to 22 per cent of the nation’s homes branched into a network success in the early ’90s.
“The fourth network”—the name that became synonymous with FOX—flipped the television model on its head, aggressively challenging how the other three networks ran their line-ups, adding unheard of weekend prime-time line-ups and stealing the NFL games from CBS.
It wasn’t an overnight success—the network overcame many fails, including its first program, “The Late Show.” However, FOX took smart risks, often airing what no one else dared to: “Married… with Children,” Aaron Spelling’s sexy soap operas “90210” and “Melrose Place,” “Cops” and “The Simpsons.”
Last month, the fourth network turned 25. Many of FOX’s counterprogramming techniques not only led to the network’s ultimate suc ces, but also helped shape television today.
At this point, Fox still wasn't officially a network. Instead, the network was considered a large conglomerate of stations. The channel's official launch wasn't until spring of 1987, and by FCC standards, a network needed a minimum of 15 hours of programming airing on stations and affiliates.
In order to gain viewers, the new network needed to assess the weaknesses of its competition--ABC, CBS and NBC. Since the Big Three networks had the lowest amount of houses using televisions (HUTs) on Saturday nights that would be its window of opportunity. It would be a risk, but ultimately a game changer.
One other insight was that the big networks were required by the government to dedicate 7-8 p.m.Sunday nights to news or family programming. Since FOX wasn't officially a network, it didn't have to play by these rules. It could air whatever it wanted during that time, providing a much-needed leg up on the competition.
When the network premiered, Fox decided to air two shows back to back and repeated their airings twice consecutively.
'Married ... with Children' 7 p.m., 8 p.m., 9 p.m.
'The Tracey Ulman Show' 7:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m.
Each week, the network added additional programming. The results took off.
The sitcom that followed the dysfunctional 'Bundy bunch' was Fox's first example of successful counterprogramming that would help solidify the network's branding.
The show, starring Katey Sagal, Ed O'Neill, Christina Applegate and David Faustino, became the longest live-action sitcom for the fourth network. When it debuted, the series originally competed with CBS' popular 'Murder, She Wrote.'
The controversial show went against everything on television at the time featuring constant fighting about money, bickering between siblings Kelly and Bud (Applegate and Faustino) and openly discussing sex.
Not everyone was a fan of the raucous show. During season 3, Michigan housewife, Terry Rakolta, encouraged viewers and advertisers to boycott Fox's hit. Her call to action didn't spur any giant riots. Instead, her plan backfired, giving the show a huge ratings boost, by making more people aware of the controversial show and the FOX network.
Interestingly, the show was never a real ratings winner, but the show saw success for 11 seasons and 259 episodes. Fox re-aired the pilot episode April 22 in honour of its 25th anniversary.
The variety television show, hosted by British comedian, Tracey Ullman followed the debut of 'Married... with Children.' Ullman acted out two to three sketches per show using her talent to portray an array of characters. Over the course of four seasons, Ullman performed as 108 characters.
During the show's first season, it was the only series nominated for Emmy Awards. Two weeks after the show went off the air in 1990, Ullman won an Emmy for her the comedy series. Go figure.
The show's giant takeaway was introducing one of the network's biggest shows, 'The Simpsons.'
The cop drama aimed towards teens easily became FOX's most popular series when it started out.
'21 Jump Street' featured four young-looking officers who could all pass as students. The cops went undercover every week busting drug trafficking, teenage prostitution, gangs and more.
The series saw Johnny Depp's rise to stardom as a teen heartthrob.
The show started out as a two-hour television movie on FOX. Over the next few weeks, the network added more shows to its schedule, including 'Mr. President' and 'Duet.'
Again, FOX used its successful counterprogramming technique when launching 'The Simpsons'--another show following a dysfunctional family in the town of Springfield.
'The Simpsons' was the first series to break into the Top 30 Neilsen ratings for Fox in a three-way tie for 29th. The show's immediate popularity roped in a menagerie of product paraphernalia--toothbrushes, bed sheets, posters etc. Celebrities also jumped at the opportunity to voice characters on the show. To date, there have been more than 600 guest stars.
The show celebrated its 500th episode this year and has won 27 Primetime Emmys, 30 Annie Awards and a Peabody. The show holds the title for longest-running American sitcom and longest-running American animated program.
However, it wasn't all pretty for Fox's favourite cartoon family. The show stirred the pot often. A few countries have banned the show from their lineups, and in 1990, an ABC executive said 'The Simpsons' 'lowered the civility level of young boys all over America.'
Initially a 30-minute series, the public service show was pegged as a 'weekly nationwide manhunt.'
Hosted by John Walsh, the show featured two or three crimes, re-enacting the crimes and prompted viewers with a photo (if available) and number to contact with any information on a lead.
In 1990, the show became an hour long. Before the show's initial cancellation in September 1996, 430 criminals were caught.
With poor ratings across the network, the show was brought back two months later with the altered title, 'America's Most Wanted: America Fights Back.' The show aired on Fox until June of last year and now airs regularly on Lifetime. In total, the series helped capture more than 1,100 wanted criminals.
Dead bodies pulled out of the water, heads slammed against patrol cars, drugs found in the back of a vehicle and barely-dressed prostitutes.
'Cops' took '21 Jump Street' to a whole new level. The show was unlike anything America ever saw.
The idea for 'Cops'--the show that followed policemen chasing the bad guys through crime-ridden America streets-- wasn't new; however, none of the other main networks wanted to take a gamble on it, worried that it was a legal nightmare. Even Fox executives were at odds about taking it on.
However, then-senior vice president, Rob Kenneally knew that people would watch it and the show went on.
23 years later, the show is still on the air, currently syndicated on truTV and G4.
Fox executives took another big risk on the hiphop, urban variety series to take on rival, 'Saturday Night Live.'
Executives saw it as a taboo pilot that would never get on the air. They feared everyone from the NAACP, gay-rights groups and more would come after them.
The show went on and rather than simply crude, tasteless humour, the show was funny and well-received. The show ultimately launched the careers of the Wayans brothers, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx and David Alan Grier.
One of the biggest moments for the show was a live halftime special during Super Bowl XXVI which lured more than 20 million viewers from CBS.
Actress Rosie Perez, Carrie Ann Inaba ('Dancing With the Stars') and Jennifer Lopez also had early starts on the show as members of the show's dance group, 'The Fly Girls.'
Originally FOX asked Aaron Spelling to do a remake of 'Charlie's Angels.' (We've seen how that pans out.)
Instead, he was later asked to work on a show centered around kids in California because he had two teenage kids and live in Beverly Hills. From there, 'Beverly Hills 90210' was born.
The show was almost canceled during its first season as it was barely watched by adults. However, at the time, nearly 40 per cent of all American teenagers were watching the show.
The network decided to get a leg up on the big three during summer hiatuses by airing new episodes of '90210.' This led to the show becoming one of FOX's top shows when it began a new season in the fall. The show lasted 10 seasons
Spelling's Spinoff 'Melrose Place,' featuring Heather Locklear turned out to be as big a hit as 'Beverly Hills.' It helped that before the show even aired in July 1992, it was featured on the cover of TV Guide.
What started off as a dud with failed 'Peter Pan and the Pirates,' ultimately became a success.
The network saw a chance to make Saturday mornings a home for kids, as much as ABC made TGIF a staple.
During the 1991-1992 season, the kids' block made huge headway with shows including, 'Beetlejuice,' 'Batman the Animated Series' and 'Tiny Toon Adventures.' The Fox Saturday morning directly competed with NBC and by December of 1991, the big three channel waved the white flag, pulled their cartoon block on the weekend and reverted to airing Saturday TODAY, a weekend component to its weekday version.
FOX took the opportunity to expand its Saturday morning lineup. In the years to follow, weekday afternoon scheduling followed along with other big hits including 'Power Rangers,' which almost never came to air.
Popular is an understatement. With more than 15 spinoffs to date and a movie the show became a worldwide phenomenon; however, the hit kid series almost never made it to air.
The show was far from an original concept. The idea for the American show came from another show 'Zyu Rangers,' featuring children who changed into costumes to fight monsters. It took $10,000 for entrepreneur Haim Saban to create his own version of the show.
The network hated the show, saying it was horrible and cheesy. However, FOX Kids' head at the time, Margaret Loesch, went ahead with the show and it was an instant hit.
NFC football was a staple on CBS. The network built its Sunday lineup around games, leading up to '60 Minutes.'
The NFC games were appealing to FOX because the teams were located in major markets, where the fourth network had the most appeal. Murdoch wanted the acquisition and FOX made a $1.6 billion offer to acquire CBS' rights.
When December rolled around, the news was official: FOX would gain rights to air NFC games for at least the next four years. FOX received more from the deal than it bargained for when CBS' NFL announcers, John Madden, Terry Bradshaw, Pat Summer and producer Ed Gordon moved to the fledgling channel. The deal helped solidify FOX's credibility as a competing network.
Note: 1993 also marked the first year the network aired every night of the week.
Shows that proved well for the now-established fourth network included:
- 'The X-Files'
- 'Ally McBeal'
- 'That '70s Show'
- 'Family Guy'*
'Family Guy' first aired in 1999, was canceled in 2002 and resurrected due to popularity in 2005.
Shows that performed well included:
'The Bernie Mac Show'
'Malcolm in the Middle'
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