Fox keeps rolling in high gear

When Fox Broadcasting Co. nettled Hollywood residents by paying to have the Hollywood sign read “Fox” in advance of its 1987 primetime premiere, it set the tone for a program service that has taken chances — and thumbed its nose at the establishment — throughout its tenure.

The so-called “fourth network” that isn’t technically a network in the eyes of the Federal Communications Commission feels it will have grown up today — coming full circle with the introduction of “The Chevy Chase Show,” having launched with a latenight show not quite seven years ago.

In the process, Fox has helped dramatically change the television environment. In fact, even with the proliferation of cable, no single force has probably been as influential on TV during that period — drying up time periods in syndication with its push toward original programming (thus forcing off-network shows to cable), upsetting the balance of power in children’s TV and challenging many of the ways the Big Three networks had traditionally done business.

Targeting the syndication issue, Sony Pictures Entertainment TV Group exec VP Andy Kaplan calls Fox “the single largest effect on the marketplace … They’ve pulled thousands of time periods away. It kills you on sitcoms and it kills you on movies.”

Adds Walt Disney TV exec VP Dean Valentine: “You’ve got to be very ambivalent about the situation if you’re a studio. It’s great to have another place to sell … (but) it crowds the syndication market with more comedies out there chasing fewer dollars.”

WB aims at Fox

Warner Bros. TV prez Leslie Moonves admits his studio was a latecomer to Fox, but now says the company aims projects at Fox in the same way it tries to steer appropriate material to the Big Three networks. “It used to be the case where you’d try the other three, then you’d go to Fox,” Moonves says. “Now there are shows you bring there first and foremost.”

Disney, for example, raised some eyebrows last spring by selling its upcoming “The Sinbad Show” to Fox despite an offer from CBS, feeling the comic’s sensibility and profile was more compatible with the youth-oriented Fox audience.

That coming-of-age mentality is now the order of the day at Fox. Lucie Salhany, who became chairwoman of Fox last January, in her June pep talk to affiliates said, “We’re not ignored any more. We’re real. We’re growing. …We have finally reached a point where the other networks are fighting us with everything they’ve got.”

Moreover, other studios — reacting to the Big Three networks’ reliance on greater in-house pro-duction — are seeking to emulate the Fox model by establishing toeholds with their own ad-hoc primetime networks, a challenge made more difficult by Fox’s just-realized goal of programming seven nights a week.

That expansion hasn’t come easily, with Fox posting its first year-to-year decline in both ratings and key demographics during the 1992-93 season. The pressure is also on for the coming year, as Fox tries to maintain audience levels over a seven-night lineup while funneling resources into latenight and the now 19-hour-a-week Fox Children’s Network.

Through its history, Fox has had its share of missteps and false starts, as well as more than its share of conflict and controversy. There was no shortage of any of that, in fact, beginning with “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” which premiered Oct. 9, 1986, on 96 stations — a self-described rag-tag group of UHF outlets accustomed to being pushed around within their markets — covering 76% of the U.S.

After some initial curiosity, the former “Tonight Show” guest host saw her audience dwindle. Rivers left the show in May 1987 to be replaced by rotating hosts, among them Arsenio Hall, who went on to make Paramount (and its then-distribution chief, Salhany) a fortune in syndication. Fox, for its part, segued into another equally ill-fated latenight show, “The Wilton North Report.”

Things were equally rocky in realizing owner Rupert Murdoch and then-Fox Inc. chairman Barry Diller’s primetime vision, beginning in April 1987 with only a Sunday lineup (at that point on 106 affiliates covering 80% of the U.S.) featuring, among others, “Married … With Children,” the only surviving show from Fox’s original development class; and “The Tracey Ullman Show,” which, before its demise, won Fox its first Emmy and gave birth to another big hit, “The Simpsons.”

At the time, however, Fox hadn’t clearly formulated or settled on the programming mix that would eventually guide the service into becoming a competitive force. At the outset, Fox insisted on pedigreed producers and talent — George C. Scott in “Mr. President,” producer Gary David Goldberg’s “Duet,” an expensive version of “The Dirty Dozen”– and suffered more than its share of failures.

The Saturday lineup premiered in July 1987, producing early casualties like “The New Adventures of Beans Baxter,””Karen’s Song” and a sitcom version of “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”

In addition to the irreverent humor of “Married” and “Ullman,” Fox scored with the teen audience thanks to “21 Jump Street,” a 7 p.m. action show that helped launch the career of Johnny Depp — the first of Fox’s steady stream of made-for-TV heart-throbs.

With expensive dramas failing, Fox turned to reality programming as a low-cost means of programming and stumbled onto the fact that crime pays. Two shows from the company’s owned-stations division, “America’s Most Wanted” (in April 1988) and, a year later, “Cops,” went on the air and blossomed into anchor shows and mainstays of the Fox lineup.

Elusive stability

As with most networks, stability proved elusive, and political in-fighting helped prompt the exit of programming chief Garth Ancier in February 1989, to be replaced by Peter Chernin. Diller pressed forward, offering Monday programming in September 1989, then dropping Monday and adding Thursday and Friday to the mix in summer 1990.

Calendar-year 1990, in retrospect, proved a pivotal year for Fox Broadcasting on several fronts, paving the way for the expansion that’s followed in terms of both primetime and children’s programming.

For one thing, Fox had just fought off a major challenge in October 1989 when it was learned that MCA and Paramount were considering the launch of a “fifth network,” Premier Program Service, to plug in nights not then filled by the three-night-a-week Fox operation.

Fox immediately pounced on its affiliates and successfully kept them in line, though Paramount, MCA and Warner Bros. have all continued to flirt with such ad-hoc networks, turning up the heat on Fox to plow ahead with expansion plans.

Even as Chernin worked toward growing primetime, Fox prez-chief operating officer Jamie Kellner was hearing grumbling from affiliates (principally station owner Harry Pappas) regarding the children’s syndication market. Fox responded with plans for the Fox Children’s Network, hiring former Marvel Prods. prez Margaret Loesch to head the venture.

That led to a particularly nasty struggle, this one a turf war between Fox and Disney. Fox, intent on carving out the afternoon for FCN, accused Buena Vista TV of seeking to intimidate stations, while Fox allegedly threatened outlets with loss of their Fox affiliation if they cleared BVT’s “The Disney Afternoon.”

In February 1990, Buena Vista filed a five-count antitrust suit against Fox and asked the FCC to block Fox’s efforts to obtain a waiver from the financial interest and syndication rules. Fox responded by accusing Disney of engaging in “anticompetitive, predatory and coercive practices.”

The same year saw Fox cement a major agreement with longterm implications for primetime. In September 1990, Fox outlined a deal with cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. extending coverage to so-called “white areas” not reached by Fox affils and, most significantly, upgrading dial-positioning for Fox’s mostly-UHF affiliates to the VHF (channel 2-13) tier — putting them on a more-even keel with the Big Three webs. “That’s a very, very important step for us,” Kellner said at the time.

Fiscal-year 1990 also marked the ultimate endorsement of Murdoch and Diller’s enterprise: a profit. Spared the overhead of the networks, which were down-sizing, Fox’s smaller-scaled operation could focus on programming, without expensive commitments to news divisions or sports fees.

After reports that Fox lost $ 42 million in its first year of operation and $ 99 million the following year, the weblet broke through and posted an estimated $ 33 million profit in fiscal-year ’90 and doubled that haul in ’91.

With expanded programming and its youth-oriented lineup, Fox’s share of the advertising market also started to climb. After estimated sales of about $ 100 million for fall 1988, those levels rose to $ 300 million in ’89 and a then-stunning $ 550 million in the upfront market for 1990-91 — nearly two-thirds the total of then-third-place CBS.

Audacious move

The most audacious move of the year, however, was the August 1990 shift of “The Simpsons” to Thursdays opposite “The Cosby Show”– a move kept under wraps until Fox’s official announcement to advertisers, who responded with spontaneous applause.

The build-up to the Bart vs. Bill battle took on Leno-Letterman proportions that summer, and the animated series didn’t disappoint, siphoning off much of the NBC show’s younger audience and installing Fox as NBC’s principal competition for that demographic on Thursday night ever since.

Soon after, Diller and Chernin began to publicly discuss what came to be known as Fox’s 52-week or year-round strategy — ordering additional episodes (as many as 30, compared to the traditional 22 or 26) of hit series and premiering new shows throughout the year, as opposed to the crush of new-series intros in September.

“It’s like an entire studio’s (theatrical) output came out on Memorial Day,” Diller said, announcing the blueprint in May 1991.

The plan didn’t exactly materialize as envisioned, but it underscored Diller’s efforts to get Fox executives to look at the business differently.

Kellner, meanwhile, proved deft at nurturing relationships with affiliates, which despite miscues were generally elated to be on the ratings map. Fox also struck a cable-friendly stance that has served it well not only via Fox Net but also in retransmission consent negotiations.

Fox benefited as well from effective lobbying in Washington, allowing the weblet to grow without facing the same restrictions as the Big Three networks. By contrast, even the revised financial interest and syndication rules present a limiting factor for the other webs.

Primetime expansion continued gradually. Fox added Wednesday programming in July 1992, Tuesday last October, and a regular Monday movie — after many false promises — joined the roster last June.

Fox now reaches 94% of the U.S. via 140 affils and Fox Net, servicing areas not reached by a Fox station.

An interesting sidelight to the Fox story is that success has so often come from unexpected sources, like “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops,” from Fox Television Station Prods.; and “In Living Color,” an irreverent sketch comedy from then relatively unknown comic/director/producer Keenen Ivory Wayans. In keeping with Fox’s proclivity toward controversy, Wayans left the series last year after a much-publicized tiff with Fox brass.

‘Color’ opened path

“Color” helped open up a path into another under-serviced market: African Americans. In addition to teens, Fox has scored big with comedies featuring predominantly black casts, such as “Martin” and “Roc.”

Finding that what’s old is new again, Fox also “discovered” Aaron Spelling. Once such a prolific ABC hit-maker that the web was known as “Aaron’s Broadcasting Co.,” Spelling had been without a series for 18 months when “Beverly Hills, 90210” put him back in circulation. The slow-rolling hit eventually took off during the summer and prompted the spin-off “Melrose Place.”

Fox faces the future with a relatively new executive roster, having witnessed a series of key departures: Diller in February 1992; Fox News prexy Stephen Chao , for the much-publicized hiring of a male stripper at a company retreat, that June; Chernin, who had brought stability to the programming area, in November when he moved over to head the feature wing and handed the baton to chief lieutenant Sandy Grushow; Kellner in January, replaced by Salhany.

The new team faces several challenges, among them Murdoch’s goal to increase affiliate involvement in news — doubtless a source of consternation, since currently only about three dozen stations air regular newscasts. Fox insists the number is growing all the time, albeit slowly. The biggest question, looking ahead, is whether Fox can maintain what’s perceived as its distinctive programming edge while increasing its reach to the upper half of the age 18-49 spectrum, having enjoyed its most loyal viewing among teens and the 18-34 bracket.

Salhany, in particular, sees broadening Fox’s appeal as a vital step in taking the network to the next level. Her stated goal is to rank first among adults 18-49 in the hours Fox programs.

Whether Fox can achieve the delicate objective of expanding while maintaining its identity remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the business has changed since Fox started trying to put its mark on Hollywood.

“They’ve accomplished an enormous amount in a very short time,” says Disney’s Valentine. “Seven years ago, there was nothing. Nowit’s become part of the culture.”

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 0

Leave a Reply

No Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

More TV News from Variety