"Well, we all come from, you know, a sort of doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist background."
! --Peter Chernin,
President, Fox Entertainment Group
Fox Broadcasting is doing it again.
Most American viewers might have their channel scanners locked on NBC this week because of the Olympics, but this is the summer of Fox.
Last month, Fox, again, went against the old rules of showing mainly reruns in summer, debuted a new series called "Melrose Place" and now has a brand new top-10 hit show that is all the buzz.
Thanks in large part to "Melrose Place," Fox two weeks ago finished ahead of one of the traditional networks, NBC, in overall household ratings for the first time in its history. And some industry analysts are predicting that Fox will finish ahead of NBC for the entire 1992-'93 season.
And driven by all that, plus the hammerlock it has on the young viewers whom advertisers most want to reach, it looks as if Fox will start the fall season with more advertising time sold for more money than any network except CBS, which finished first last year.
Not bad. And Fox is doing all this growing and money-making when audiences for other broadcast networks are eroding.
What is Fox doing that NBC, ABC, CBS or PBS aren't? Or, as one English journalist put it as he was leaving a Fox presentation on the fall preview press conference in Los Angeles recently: "What makes these Fox people -- with all their shows about garbage men and shoe salesmen -- so bloody smart anyway?"
The shoe salesman and garbage man are, of course, Al Bundy of "Married . . . With Children" and Roc Emerson of "Roc," respectively. And they are very much part of the answer to the question of what makes Fox such a great success. They are part of a blue-collar sensibility driving some of the more successful Fox shows, such as "Married," "Roc" and "The Simpsons."
"Blue-collar" is an adjective that isn't used much lately when talking about prime-time television. The only other important blue-collar family in prime time is the Conners of "Roseanne" on ABC. And, although their collars are blue, there is no real sense on that show of what it means to be working class. I can't remember one show, for example, where there was genuine anxiety about meeting the mortgage or rent payment or a sense by any of the characters that their options in life were limited by the circumstances of their social class.
Prime time tends to yup-scale
In fact, prime-time television rarely admits there are class differences in this country and that life looks very different depending on which side of the working-class boundary you happen to live on. Almost everyone on prime-time television lives in a shiny, suburban world like that of the Taylors on "Home Improvement" or a shiny, yup-scale world like that of "Murphy Brown" -- except on Fox.
"Roc" lives in a rowhouse in Baltimore. In last year's premiere episode, he delivered his comic, working-class version of "I Have a Dream." His dream, he said, was to someday own a semidetached home at the end of the row. Roc furnishes his rowhouse with furniture collected on his garbage route that has been repaired or restored. What shines in "Roc" are the dreams.
There are two new Fox shows with that same sensibility set to debut next month: "The Heights" and "Class of '96." They both look like winners.
"The Heights" is about a rock 'n' roll band of working-class adultin their 20s. The band members -- who live in the smokestack-and-factory landscape of Bruce Springsteen's New Jersey -- work during the day as mechanics, truck dispatchers and grocery store clerks. And, like Roc, they dream. Their dreams are expressed in their music.
"Class of '96" takes place in what might seem like the unlikely setting of an Ivy League college. But the series is told in part through the narration of David Copperfield Morrissey, a working-class kid from New Jersey on scholarship. Most of the two-hour pilot is about class differences and Morrissey's dreams. It's smart stuff -- like the answers that Fox president Chernin gave during a recent interview in California when he was asked about that working-class sensibility at Fox.
Chernin started his explanation with the "Marxist-Leninist" quote, but added quickly that he was only kidding.
"I think that we have strived to do a number of things -- one of
which is to make television a little less sort
of saccharine or standard or predictable," he said. "We do live in a world in which there are class differences."
And class differences mean different audiences, in the words of media scholar John Fiske, of the University of Wisconsin, who insists you can't talk about TV viewers as a single audience.
"Pluralizing the term into audiences at least recognizes that there are differences between viewers that must be taken into account," he writes in "Television Culture." "We are not a homogenous society. . . . Our social system is crisscrossed by axes of class, gender, race, age, nationality, region, politics, and so on, all of which produce strongly marked differences."
Unlike CBS, for example, which still primarily thinks of the TV audience as one huge homogeneous mass, Fox acknowledges such differences and develops programs based on them, Chernin said.
"We have always tried very hard to think about audiences that are underserved," he said. "If you look at some of our biggest hits -- say, 'In Living Color' and 'Beverly Hills 90210' -- they came from audiences that had been traditionally underserved by television. the case of 'In
Living Color,' it was sort of a contemporary, hip-hop minority culture. And in the case of '90210,' there hadn't been a realistic teen-age show." Working class underserved
Working-class viewers make up one very large and underrepresented audience, according to Chernin. And Fox has tried to serve them. It's as simple as that, he said.
The success of the fourth network is not by any means due only to this blue-collar sensibility, growing out of a recognition that there was a huge working-class audience that rarely saw its culture realistically portrayed in prime time. Two other major reasons for the success of Fox are surely the network's youth appeal and a certain derring-do in programming -- like the decision to broadcast "Roc" live this year.
And, while much is starting to be made of the twentysomething appeal of "The Heights" and "Class of '96," the two shows do have a working-class sensibility.
Class differences are very much what "Class of '96" is about, according to executive producer John Romano, a former Columbia University professor. And he thinks the working-class point of view of its narrator is what will make the series work in a realistic way.
"We want to really present the wonderful American myth that a good education is the [avenue] to all sorts of possibilities. Take a working-class kid, the first one of his family to go to college. He drives over a hill, and there's ivy, there's girls, there's Frisbees, there's professors with pipes. And, he says, 'Wow, how long has this been going on?'
"That point of view, I think, invites that largest possible perspective on a myth that we hope is still true. . . . I was a working-class kid from New Jersey, and the first of his family to go to college. And, like David Copperfield Morrissey, that's how the world opened for me."