In the years since the Fox Broadcasting Co. formed an ad hoc network of TV stations in 1986, Fox's strategy of pursuing young viewers has frequently proved to be a nuisance--but rarely a serious threat--to the dominance of the Big Three networks.
For four of the past six weeks, Fox has staked a claim as the top-rated network on Saturday mornings for kids 2 to 11--the age group most sought after by advertisers during that time period. Perhaps more significantly, on three of those weeks, Fox's ragtag network of small independent TV stations, many of them low-power UHF stations, drew as many or more total households watching television than either CBS, ABC or NBC.
The little network that could received a sudden boost from the mutant power of "X-Men," an animated series that finished as the No. 1 show with children last Saturday morning after only six weeks on the air, according to A.C. Nielsen Co. figures released Friday. Ironically, the serial "X-Men," based on one of the largest-selling lines in history from Marvel Comics, benefited by production delays that pushed the scheduled September premiere back to January, when the other networks were cycling through reruns.
Although CBS holds a decided advantage on Saturday mornings in season-to-date ratings for both children and households, Fox's surging lineup of animation, led by "X-Men," has contributed to the viewer erosion on the Big Three networks. The share of ABC's audience of children 2 to 11 this season has dropped 5% from last season, while CBS has fallen 8%.
At the same time, the share of the kids audience on Fox has shot up 33%. Six of the top 10 shows last Saturday morning belonged to Fox.
NBC, for its part, abandoned programming for young children altogether on Saturday mornings this season. Already getting soundly beaten by Fox last season, the network chose instead to focus on adults in the early morning with the "Today" show and on teen-agers--whom NBC claims spend $40 billion a year of their own money--later in the morning, with live-action shows rather than cartoons.
"There's been a real misconception," said Linda Mancuso, NBC's vice president of children's and family programming. "People think we're out of the kids business. That's not true. We're just dealing with older kids."
But Fox has taken a chunk of them, too. Before "X-Men," NBC had the three highest-rated teen series on Saturday morning, with two editions of the sitcom "Saved by the Bell" and the wish-fulfillment series "California Dreams." "X-Men" now ranks No. 2 among teens, thanks to the heavy concentration of teen-age boys who've flocked to the show.
" 'X-Men' has put Fox over the hump, that's very accurate," said Haim Saban, president of Saban Entertainment, which won the bid to produce "X-Men." "But Fox was on its way to No. 1 anyway. Not to minimize our contribution, but Fox was going to get there. What 'X-Men' has done is accelerate what would have happened anyway."
Most observers agree that Fox's rise on Saturday was inevitable. Unlike the other networks, Fox lets kids toon out six days a week with blocks of "Beetlejuice!," "Tiny Toon Adventures" and "Batman: The Animated Series," among others, on weekday mornings and afternoons--during which the network can plug its Saturday morning lineup. The other networks and their affiliates generally aim for adults on weekdays with network news programs in the morning and soap operas and syndicated talk shows during the afternoon.
In addition, the Fox Children's Network, the umbrella organization under which all of Fox's children's programming falls, runs a Fox Kids Club, which it says has swollen to in excess of 5 million card-carrying members. With Fox acting as a national "headquarters," spending $1.2 million a quarter to publish and mail fan magazines packed with Fox children's programming tidbits, Fox affiliate stations serve as local "chapters," holding community activities, meetings and contests for the young viewers.
"We have a powerful distribution system that cross-promotes all the day parts," said Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Children's Network, which went from 10 hours of programming last season to 19 hours this season. "And the Kids Club is part of that marketing, promotion and distribution system. The underlying theme of the Children's Network is pushed with that magazine, that kids belong to the network."
Judy Price, vice president of children's programs and daytime specials for CBS, said that "Fox has the best of all worlds. It's a kid-friendly network to begin with, with a prime-time schedule that's very youth-oriented."
CBS rose to No. 1 in prime time primarily with sophisticated adult series, so there are few places to pitch CBS' popular lineup of "The Little Mermaid," "Garfield and Friends" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Overall, the bulk of the Saturday morning promotions by the major networks take place during Saturday morning.