Fox shows define life on fringe

You’re starting your own TV network with a group of UHF stations, and you need to lure viewers away from the Big Three as well as other, more established, independent stations — upturning years of stubborn audience loyalty.

In order to break those entrenched viewing patterns you have to “make a big splash with every program, grab ’em by the collar,” says Garth Ancier, a member of the core group of executives present at the birth of the Fox network.

And that’s just what Fox did.

Admittedly, it was a hit-and-miss proposition. “We learned as we went along,” says Ancier. And some lessons were costly. Fox learned that viewers didn’t want to see the sitcom “Mr. President,” with George C. Scott and Madeleine Kahn, because they could see established stars in that kind of program on CBS, NBC or ABC.

What they couldn’t see was “Married … With Children,” “the flip side of anything on sitcoms,” according to the successful series’ co-creator and executive producer, Michael Moye. At the time the show debuted, sitcoms were in the “nice” era typified by “The Bill Cosby Show,” in which lessons were learned and problems resolved in 22 minutes.

“Married” had no such lofty ambitions. It was raucous and “out there,” says Moye. And it presented Fox with the dilemma of choosing to be the alternative programmer the network said it wanted to be or not.

“Married … With Children” was given its head and became the first Fox show to get double-digit ratings, thanks in part to the unforseen hand of a midwestern housewife named Terry Rakolta, who targeted the show as offensive — which was tantamount to shouting “naked, beautiful woman in the living room” in the middle of a frat party.

Redfining the borders of evening programming also entailed attracting viewers whose habits were not set in stone, the younger demographic, from which shows like “21 Jump street” came into being.

Fox was working its way upwards from the low end of the 18-49-year-old scale. And it was starting to click.

A year later, the Writer’s Guild strike hit, and Fox was stopped dead in its tracks. And out of the jaws of that defeat came reality programming, an idea with which Fox had already toyed. It was inexpensive, and it certainly was different. But, says Ancier, Fox feared such programs would brand the fledgling network as just another local station buying cheap syndication shows.

“America’s Most Wanted,” and subsequently, “Cops,” became benchmarks in a genre that not only redefined primetime (where previously inter-active programming had not existed), but became a cultural phenomenon as well.

Gold nuggets

“They were working the fringe,” says Lance Heflen, exec producer on “America’s Most Wanted,””and they found nuggets of gold.”

Many of Fox’s early risky efforts didn’t pull in strong critical word. And in the cases where reviewers were kind, such as a new attempt at a variety program, “The Tracey Ullman Show,” audiences were not. But even out of a miss, Fox managed a hit with “The Simpsons,” which spent its infancy as a segment of Ullman’s show and evolved into its own series.

A half-hour cartoon featuring a dysfunctional family? A definite risk. And Fox was already trying a “living cartoon” called “Get a Life,” starring Chris Elliott, which pretty much split everyone — critics, audiences and even Fox execs, straight down the middle.

“Half the executives liked it, half hated it. The same was true of audiences, ” says David Mirkin, one of the show’s creators.

For instance, Elliot dies in many of the shows and returns the next week with no explanation.

“We definitely got to do things that no other network would have allowed,” says Mirkin, who is now executive producer on “The Simpsons,” which succeeded where “Get a Life” did not.

The animated comedy became the highest rated and most critically applauded program in Fox’s short history. Bart Simpson entered the country’s cultural consciousness.

Add a few other defining shows, such as Keenan Ivory Wayans’ “In Living Color ,” and Aaron Spelling’s “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch’s folly suddenly had an identity: Fox was hip, cutting-edge, and the other networks appeared even more lumbering and bloated than they had before.

“Except for Dumont in the 1950s, no one ever did what Fox did,” says Ancier, who is now an independent producer.

Building on that base, Fox is now facing the future with a full seven nights a week of scheduled programming, which demands that the network expand its demographic base. Does that mean the end of risk-taking? And if so, what will distinguish Fox from its broadcast competitors?

Mandate: broaden

“Our mandate is definitely to broaden,” says Sandy Grushow, president of the Fox Entertainment Group. “But it’s as much a question of practicality as it is policy.”

There are those, like Mirkin, who fear that that attracting a wider audience segment could result in homogenization and a loss of the “hip” identity which has been Fox’s calling card. If Fox were to become just another network, especially at a time when the Big Three are venturing out into the land of risk with programs like Stephen Bochco’s “NYPD Blue,” the outcome could be devastating.

On the other hand, says Grushow, continued excessive risk-taking might only deliver programs that “satisfy a niche within a niche, when our goal from the very beginning was to capture the entire 18-49-year-old demographic. We’ve hit the lower part of that successfully, but there’s enormous room for growth on the upper end.”

Depending on how narrowly one defines risk-taking, Fox doesn’t seem to have yet given up the ghost. The broadcaster is even employing the enemy to help its cause, the enemy being cable giant HBO. Pay-cable, the land of risk or bust, has been so successful as to spawn productions designed for broadcast TV.

Chris Albrecht, president of HBO Independent Prods., admits that a series like “Roc,” currently on the Fox network, may seem like less of a risk because of its more mainstream sitcom roots. Nonetheless, Fox still allowed HBO to experiment with a season of live shows. And “Martin” took the unproven Martin Lawrence and allowed him to play multiple characters, includ ing his mother and his oversexed neighbor, Sheneneh.

“Where they need to be careful in approach is that you don’t have to do a show the traditional way in order to get the traditional audience,” says Albrecht, who is fighting to make sure that “Roc” continues to confront issues as well as entertain. “You have to let a show find its own style instead of applying the same rules to every show.”

It worked with “Martin,” says Albrecht. And it will continue to work as as long as Fox trusts the talent to do what they were hired to do, as happens at HBO, and typified Fox’s early years with such hits as “In Living Color, “”Married” and “Simpsons.” And he hopes for it to continue this coming season with HBO’s new Fox entry, “Daddy Dearest.”

There certainly have been no creative reins placed on “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.,” Fox’s new western series, according to Carlton Cuse, its creator.

Western may be too narrow a definition for “Brisco,” which includes comedy and science-fiction with the same type of irreverence as “The Wild, Wild West” and “Maverick,” and cliffhanger endings like ’40s movie serials.

“It’s a cross-genre,” says Cuse, “a western, adventure spoof with elements of sci-fi. There are a lot of things that separate us from ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.’ ”

The ’90s spin on a time-tested genre is key to busting demographic barriers, says Cuse, key to attracing members of his parents’ generation, and still pulling in Generation Xers.

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