ON THE SLY 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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

One episode that first season, which suggested frontal nudity, so outraged a Michigan mother who was watching with her children that she started a movement to boycott the series' advertisers. Terry Rakolta said she found the show offensive because, "It exploits women, stereotypes poor people, has gratuitous sex and anti-family attitudes."

Fox moved the show to 9 o'clock, but instead of being hurt by Rakolta's campaign, the fledgling network received a whirlwind of publicity, and "Married" shot up in the ratings.

"Terry Rakolta has no idea how important she was in building the Fox network," Kellner said.

Parents who are troubled today by what their young children might see or hear about sex at 8 o'clock on such shows as NBC's "Friends" have Fox to thank.

Fox continued to program the early hours of prime time with such adult fare as "The Tracey Ullman Show," which spawned "The Simpsons." By the early 1990s, with "Beverly Hills, 90210" a ratings hit, the old-line networks gave up the ghost of a family hour and started pouring their own hot bodies into the 8 o'clock breach.

"The Simpsons" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" are the two series that put Fox on the pop culture map and that continue to resonate through our lives.

Each helped "make more legitimate a style of adolescent and post-adolescent rebellion," in the words of Todd Gitlin, professor at New York University and author of "Inside Prime Time."

"The Simpsons" is probably the most widely acclaimed series on network television, with fans ranging from the same middle school boys who love "Beavis and Butt-head" to media scholars, such as Gitlin and Douglas Gomery, of the University of Maryland at College Park.

"I think 'The Simpsons' is at least as good as any show that's ever been on television," Gomery said. "It's like [Alfred] Hitchcock. It's able to operate on a certain basic level, and it's interesting as a story to all kinds of people.

"But, on another level, in terms of the references and the contextuality and inter-textuality and all those kinds of fancy terms, it is unbelievably rich. It's simply a brilliant show," Gomery said.

"Beverly Hills, 90210," meanwhile, is in no way as original as "The Simpsons," but its effect on youth culture is still significant.

Take the character Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) as a symbol of youthful rebellion. True, he is a watered-down version of Marlon Brando's Johnny in the 1954 film "The Wild One." But film, in general, is a far more daring medium than prime-time network television, and Dylan certainly brings a lot more edge to the rebel-in-a-leather-jacket television type than did his predecessor, Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler) of "Happy Days," who became a kind of tame family pet living in a room over the Cunninghams' garage.

Dylan had sex, Dylan drove fast, Dylan did drugs, and he did it all at 8 o'clock, right under the noses of Mr. and Mrs. Walsh, parents of Brenda, played by bad girl Shannen Doherty.

"Beverly Hills, 90210" didn't invent the impotent parents; but Fox refined the model with the Walshes and then took it one step further, eliminating parents altogether in "Party of Five," in its effort to appeal to youth.

Jenny Garth, who plays Kelly Taylor, said one very simple reason for "90210's" success is that it's on Fox. A more established network might not have stuck with the show in the early going when the ratings were low.

"The show did take a long time to catch on," she said.

"The X-Files" also took a while to catch on, but Fox has again been rewarded with a large, loyal and young audience.

The youth appeal of "The X-Files" is found in the message that all the conspiracies, cover-ups, assassinations, corruption and confusion gripping the world today are a result of the sins of the fathers of the generation that includes agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). In other words, if you are over 45, you are just as guilty as Richard Nixon, "the ghost animating the machinery of 'The X-Files,' " said Allison Graham, a University of Memphis professor and an author of "Trust No One: Reading The X-Files."

Kicks are for kids

That's just part of the difference Fox has made these last 10 years -- and that's only on the prime-time programming front.

In children's programming, Fox is far and away the highest-rated network. Wouldn't it be nice to believe that its superhit, "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," isn't having an effect on the millions of kids who watch each day?

Margaret Loesch, president of the Fox Kids Network, insists, "There's no real evidence of a link between watching a show like 'Power Rangers' and certain kinds of behavior."

But any mom or dad who has seen a son or daughter practicing kung-fu kicks in front of the television set after watching the show knows better.

Loesch defends Fox kids' programming by saying, "We believe in presenting a balanced meal with several different kinds of programming." And it is true that Fox also offers "Goosebumps" and a version of "Where In the World Is Carmen San Diego?" along with "Power Rangers."

And what about sports? Nothing rocked the world of the Big Three like Fox winning the right to broadcast National Football League games in 1993 by outbidding CBS, which had been broadcasting NFL games for 38 years. Murdoch won the rights with a bid of $1.58 billion for four years.

"I think football may be the biggest thing he did," said Gomery, who writes a "Business of Television" column for the American Journalism Review.

And then, after years of learning the hard way that having a strong distribution system was every bit as important as strong programming, Murdoch used the NFL to start luring affiliates away from the Big Three.

In May 1994, he spent another $500 million to accelerate the process by acquiring 20 percent of the New World station group. If you count UHF outlets, Fox-owned stations now reach more of the viewing public than those of any other network.

The most recent move by Fox has been into the 24-hour cable news business. Again, emphasizing distribution, the channel launched in 19 million homes in October. By comparison, CBS Eye On People, the new Westinghouse information channel that relies on CBS News programming, started with a reach of only 2 million homes this week.

Good and bad

In the end, there is no easy thumbs-up/thumbs-down assessment of Fox. Just as "The Simpsons" is liberating and smart, so is "Married With Children" debasing and dumb. Rakolta was right on that count.

And just as the network brought new black voices, such as Martin Lawrence, into the discourse of prime time, so did it exploit them in the cartoonish behavior required to stay on the air. Remember, this is the network that moved "Roc" all over the schedule and then canceled it in part because Baltimore's Charles "Roc" Dutton wanted to go for relevance instead of only yuks. Ditto for "South Central," which one network executive said he found "too depressing" for prime time.

And though you might love the camp and self-proclaimed cutting-edge style of "Melrose Place," how "counter" was Fox in 1995 when a couple of advertisers threatened to pull out if a scene was broadcast showing gay character Matt Fielding (Doug Savant) kissing another man? Not very. The scene was edited to delete the kiss.

In terms of television-as-business, Fox is a tremendous success story, and it did create a counterculture, which is no mean feat.

But it's a culture that celebrates teen sex and style above all else, depicts working-class characters as fools, precludes the possibility of meaningful relationships for homosexuals and mainly shows black people joking, jiving and playing football, rarely being thoughtful or serious.

Let's not break out the champagne just yet.

Fox milestones

May 1986 -- Fox Broadcasting officially launched at a press conference announcing comedian Joan Rivers has signed to be host of a late-night talk show.

April 1987 -- First Fox prime-time program, "Married With Children," premieres.

February 1988 -- "America's Most Wanted" debuts with host John Walsh. First criminal captured six days later after picture is displayed on show.

September 1989 -- "The Tracey Ullman Show" wins four Emmys, the first ever for Fox. In December, "The Simpsons," previously seen as shorts on Ullman's show, debuts.

October 1990 -- "The Simpsons" moves to new time period opposite NBC's "The Cosby Show." "Beverly Hills, 90210" debuts.

January 1992 -- Fox takes on CBS halftime coverage of Super Bowl XXVI with "Doritos Zaptime/In Living Color Halftime Party." Fox show draws 30 million viewers, while CBS loses 21 million during its broadcast.

February 1992 -- "Roc" show is first live episode of a sitcom since "The Honeymooners."

July 1992 -- "Melrose Place" premieres in Wednesday prime time.

December 1993 -- Fox gets rights to National Football League for $1.58 billion.

September 1994 -- "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" debuts. October 1996 -- Fox News Channel premieres.

February 1997 -- "Married With Children," longest-running sitcom television, broadcasts 250th episode.

Pub Date: 4/05/97

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