Fox at 25: The hits and misses

Fox celebrated their 25th Anniversary in prime-time this past Sunday with a two-hour retrospective, featuring clips of past shows and a few cast reunions. While the network officially launched its primetime lineup on April 5, 1987 with three airings each of Married… With Children and The Tracey Ullman Show, the network actually launched on October 9, 1986 with The Late Show With Joan Rivers as a late-night strip.

Along the way, Fox launched a kids lineup, a sports division, a regional sports network (Fox Sports Net), FX, Fox Sports Deportes, and other entities. And it all started back in 1985 when Rupert Murdoch acquired a controlling stake in Twentieth Century Fox Corp. and purchased six large-market Metromedia stations, including WFLD in Chicago, WNEW (now WNYW) in New York and KTTV in Los Angeles  – all of which would lay the foundation of his new Fox network.

So just how did a studio create a broadcast network when the FCC’s financial interest and syndication rules (fin-syn) prevented the Big 3 networks from monopolizing the television landscape and booted them from the lucrative syndication business? Simple. The FCC’s definition of a network at the time was a service providing a maximum of eighteen hours of primetime programming per week. Murdoch and Fox got around this by programming only fifteen hours per week, which meant they would not be subject to FCC rules- and more importantly, Murdoch could keep the studio’s syndication business (fin-syn would expire in 1995, paving the way for the major networks to merge with studios and return to the syndication business.)

Here’s a list of hits – and misses – of the last 25 years for Fox, on-air and off:

– Hit: Married… With Children. While this raunchy sitcom never got the credit it deserved (critics often ranked this sitcom on many worst show lists), the low-brow Bundys did change the family sitcom for the – um, worst? Everybody Loves Raymond and Two And A Half Men ought to give thanks to the Bundys for paving the way to a different type of family dysfunction (and Married… ought to thank Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta for bringing this show to America’s attention.)

In 1991, Married… was the first off-network sitcom to become available for syndication for Big 3 network affiliates to run in prime access (the hour before primetime) as the since-expired prime-time access rule prevented them from airing off-net material at the time. Since Fox wasn’t a network as defined by fin-syn, Married could run on Big 3 network affiliates in access. NBC-owned WMAQ-TV took advantage and bought the syndication rights to air at 6:30 p.m.

– Hit: The Simpsons. This show practically re-wrote the sitcom book, and paved the way for other animated series like Family Guy, Futurama, King of the Hill, Archer, Bob’s Burgers, and adult swim’s block of shows. Even though now the show is a bit long in the tooth, The Simpsons is still the best sitcom ever created for television.

– Miss: Fox late-night. Aside from MadTV, Fox’s record in late night… Chevy Chase, Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Spike Feresten, and The Wilton-North Report pretty much tells you all you need to know.

– Hit: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Fox decided to put this groundbreaking, critically-acclaimed Showtime series on its air in June 1988, marking the first premium-cable series to air on a broadcast network. Garry Shandling went on to greater success with The Larry Sanders Show.

– Miss: Totally Hidden Video. This 1989 Candid Camera rip-off was called out by its creator Allen Funt (he actually sued the series for plagiarism.) The executive producer of Totally Hidden Video by the way, was the guy who played Sergeant Andrew Carter on Hogan’s Heroes.

– Hit. 21 Jump Street. The first Fox show to enter off-network syndication (and whose reruns aired on a Big 3 competing network), this series about young undercover cops spawned a 2012 movie adaption with Jonah Hill (which yours truly found absolutely hilarious.)

– Hit: In Living Color. The success of this comedy-sketch series featuring the Wayans family paved the way for Fox to target urban audiences successfully with Roc, Martin, and Living Single. And yes – those sketches are just as funny as they were 20 years ago.

– Miss. Every other prime-time sketch series on Fox …on the other hand, The Edge, The Ben Stiller Show, House of Buggin‘, and recent entry In The Flow with Affion Crockett weren’t nearly as successful.

– Hit: 24. The first series to be written in real-time – a whole season captured an entire day. And we learn Jack Bauer never had a dull moment in his life!

– Hit: America’s Most Wanted. Lumped in at the time of its debut as “trash TV”, this show has helped catch more than 1,000 fugitives from justice. Canceled by Fox last summer, Wanted now runs on Lifetime.

– Hit: Cops. Fox’s longest-running show (since March 1989) took us along for exciting police rides every week.

– Hit: Fox Kids. Began as a response to the successful Disney Afternoon in 1990, the success of series like Anamainiacs, Batman, and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers helped put the rival two-hour block out of business. The Fox Kids block was later scaled back to Saturday Mornings before being eliminated all together in 2008.

– Hit: Beverly Hills 90210. Lasting a decade, this series showed that even wealthy kids weren’t immune to the same problems other teenagers and young adults face.

– Miss: Good Grief. Howie Mandel stars in a sitcom set in a funeral home, wanting to put the “fun” back in funeral. Cue up the laughs.

– Hit: Melrose Place. After a slow start, the producers brought in Heather Locklear and soon, there was catfights galore. Melrose was even a center of a subplot on NBC’s Seinfeld, signaling Melrose and the Fox network had arrived in pop-culture lore.

– Hit: The X-Files. One of yours truly’s personal favorites, this series showed us the truth was out there – and how the government kept us from finding it.

– Hit: Fox shocks the world, Part 1. In 1993, Fox outbid CBS from the NFC football package, ending a 38-year relationship with the Tiffany Network.

– Hit: Fox shocks the world, Part 2. A few months later, Fox would do it again – by making an affiliation deal with New World’s 12 stations – with eight of them switching over from CBS, including major markets such as Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Milwaukee.

– Misses: Who Wants To Marry A Multimillionaire and other Fox reality tripe. This debacle made Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger household names – for all the wrong reasons, of course. Other Fox reality misses included Married by America, My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, The Swan, and The Guinness Book of World Records.

– Hits: Malcolm in the Middle and The Bernie Mac Show. Two well-done comedies (at least in their early seasons) that took a new look at the family comedy, “single-camera” style.

– Miss: Temptation Island. Social critics regularly slam The Bachelor for mocking the institution of marriage. Temptation Island on the other hand, was much worse.

– Miss: The Fox bug. Oh, we are ever grateful for Fox putting a logo on the bottom right-hand screen, which almost every broadcast and cable station has since imitated.

– Hit: American Idol. A simple karaoke contest turned out to be one the biggest hits in Fox’s history, and created a franchise worth millions of dollars. Launched the careers of winners Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Scott McCreary and even those who didn’t win (Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert.) As far as Chicago is concerned, Idol barely registers with viewers in the Windy City, thanks to the infamous Jennifer Hudson screwjob of 2004. Even Mount Prospect native Lee DeWyze’s win six years later hasn’t done much to make Idol relevant to Chicagoans, as the series’ ratings continues to lag those of other major markets.

– Miss: The Simple Life. Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie star in… whatever   this was.

– Miss: Anchorwoman.  Airhead model wants to be an anchorwoman at a local TV station in Texas. Viewers wanted out after one week.

– Miss: The Osbournes Reloaded. As yours truly put it in The T Dog Media TV Hall Of Shame: “A “preview” of a new TV series featuring… kids dressed up as Ozzy and Sharon swearing; the Osbournes working a drive-thru; and an ambush wedding, all in 35 minutes.” And predictably, the shortened “preview” was the only episode of this series to ever air.

– Hit: The Fox Box. The handy device which kept track of the score (and the time remaining in the game, if applicable) is now a staple of sports broadcasts worldwide.

– Miss: The glowing puck. Fox’s stint with the NHL (1995-99) was highlighted by this monstrosity. Liked the FoxBots, though.

– Miss: Allen Gregory. Despite yours truly warming up to the talents of Jonah Hill (thanks to 21 Jump Street), this is still the worst animated sitcom of all time.

– Hit: Arrested Development. This quirky, hilarious comedy became the first Fox sitcom to win an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

– Miss: ‘Til Death. Don’t explain to me how this show managed to last four years.

– Miss: The imitators. If it weren’t for Fox, we wouldn’t have had The WB and UPN. Of course, neither now-defunct network (and their replacement, the soon-to-be defunct CW), would never match Fox’s success.

– Miss: The War At Home. The war on laughs were lost with this show.

– Best local sports memory: The Chicago White Sox winning the 2005 World Series over the Houston Astros.

…and the worst: Take your pick: the Chicago Bears losing the 2010 NFC Championship Game to the Green Bay Packers or The Chicago Cubs 2003 NLCS collapse.

…and the wildest: The 2012 Daytona 500, which was bumped into primetime for the first time ever thanks to the previous day’s rainout.

– Miss: Fox Chicago News. WFLD launched a news operation months two months after Fox’s prime time lineup did. 25 years later, the station’s newscasts are still in last place despite the success of Fox and the addition of the Bears, as viewers continue to pick ABC-owned WLS-TV and Tribune’s WGN-TV as their choices for local news. Even so, there has been some flashes of brilliance (Fox Thing In The Morning, for one.)

As for the anniversary special, it was clearly a miss – only 4.3 million viewers tuned in to the extravaganza, and drew only a 1.8 rating in the adult 18-49 demo. Not surprisingly, the special was panned by critics as the show conveniently chose to ignore many series that attracted African-American audiences (particularly Roc), barely paid attention to animated series (outside of The Simpsons and Family Guy), ignored Malcolm in the Middle, no mention of Fox Kids, and notable no-shows by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Simon Cowell, and Damon Wayans, and worst of all – no mention of America’s Most Wanted. And yeah, way too much Ryan Seacrest. Way too much. NBC’s and WGN-TV’s anniversary specials (with even Jim Belushi as host of the latter) – were far better.