Fox snuck into the ratings henhouse by looking at how ABC, NBC, and CBS did things, and doing the opposite. After its first decade, the network is robust, if imperfect

ON THE SLY

April 05, 1997|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Here's how it was back in the catch-as-catch-can days for Fox Broadcasting in the spring of 1987.

One of the very first concepts that the young and inexperienced programmers came up with was a weekly series titled "Werewolf," starring John J. York as a young man who turns into a werewolf when the moon is full.

The program was set to start production when show producer Frank Lupo was summoned to the office of Barry Diller, the hard-nosed Hollywood executive whom Rupert Murdoch had hired to run the wannabe network.

"If this guy only changes into a werewolf when the moon is full," Diller asked Lupo, "does that mean we only have a program once a month? What do we do the other three weeks?"

Lupo hadn't thought about the once-a-month business, and now he had to think fast.

"But the moon is always full somewhere," he said. "You just can't see it."

"Hmmmm, yeah, you've got a point," Diller said. "And you've got a show."

"Werewolf" lasted only a year, and perhaps the most memorable thing about it was Fox's over-the-top promotion, which included announcements urging viewers to call a toll-free number to report werewolf sightings. But it was a beginning, at a time when conventional wisdom said that the Big Three Networks -- NBC, CBS and ABC -- were going to have a hard time surviving in days to come.

A decade later, Fox is so successfully established as the fourth network that it spawned a fifth and sixth last year in WB and UPN. In fact, if you use the key demographic that determines most advertising sales -- adults 18 to 49 years old -- Fox is the second-highest-rated network behind NBC, according to Nielsen ratings taken during the most recent "sweeps" period in February.

Fox is celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend, because April 5 marks the Sunday night 10 years ago when "Married With Children," the first prime-time series from Fox, hit the airwaves with that unforgettable opening of little Bud Bundy holding a plastic knife to sister Kelly's throat and saying, "Die, Commie bimbo."

The scene set a tone -- irreverent and hip or corrosive and coarse depending on your point of view -- that continues to define Fox for many viewers. Love it or hate it, Fox has changed both the television business and our popular culture in noteworthy ways.

As a business, it showed that niche programming, as opposed to the all-things-to-all-people approach, could work at the network level, and that changed the way the Big Three did business. Its emphasis on teens and African-Americans resulted in new voices, looks and sounds entering mainstream culture. They range from the retro sideburns of Brandon Walsh and the anti-authoritarian "eat my shorts" of Bart Simpson to the hip-hop edge of "In Living Color" and the creepy-cool counter-history taught by "The X-Files."

"Counter" is a word that pops up repeatedly among network executives, Hollywood producers and industry analysts when they are asked for their assessment of what Murdoch hath wrought and brought into America's living rooms in the past 10 years. Fox, they say, is the counter-network created through counterprogramming that built its own counterculture, for better or worse.

"Fox has always stood for that which is alternative," said Peter Roth, president of Fox Entertainment. "And it's had its greatest success in shows that run counter to what the other guys are doing. If you look at the history of Fox -- 'Married With Children,' 'In Living Color,' 'The Simpsons,' 'The X-Files' -- they always reached for what was different."

More specifically, said John Matoian, the former Fox president who now runs HBO Pictures, "Fox was created as the counter-family-hour network."

Jamie Kellner, the very first president of Fox and now president ++ of WB, elaborated: "The old-line network strategy was to play their adult-content shows at 9 o'clock. But we were on weak stations in the early days, so for us to put our best stuff up against their best stuff would have been disastrous. They simply had more station power. So we counterprogrammed and put 9 o'clock shows on at 8."

The cultural fallout from that strategy is still being felt in terms of a lost family viewing hour.

'Anti-family attitudes'

The family viewing hour was created when the Big Three networks -- facing the possibility of government regulation -- agreed in 1975 to keep the first two hours of evening programming (7 to 9) free of adult content, especially sex and violence.

But along came Fox in 1987 to schedule "Married" at 8: 30 on

Sunday nights. The advertising campaign for the series positioned it as counterprogramming to the kid-friendly "The Cosby Show."

"This Ain't the Huxtables," the Fox ads for "Married" said. Not only did the Bundys talk a lot about sex (or the lack of it) in their married life, but the Fox cameras showed more flesh than any sitcom up to that time.

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