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How Fox Outran the Hounds

After some initial stumbles, the network has finally found an identity as an alternative to the Big Three--with a rebel philosophy and a bit of help from a Michigan housewife.

March 30, 1997|Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

To the harmonious melody of Frank Sinatra's "Love & Marriage" and the disharmonious rantings of the blue-collar "anti-Cosbys," the Fox network proclaimed its arrival in America's prime-time consciousness 10 years ago this week, poised to challenge ABC, CBS and NBC and become the fourth commercial broadcasting network.

But despite the brashness of the April 5, 1987, premiere of "Married . . . With Children," which was a parody of the cuddly, lovable Huxtables of "The Cosby Show" on NBC, the network was still in the hunt for the Fox persona.

The irreverent attitude associated with the network today was not yet in bloom. To sound like its rivals, Fox was using the moniker FBC, for the Fox Broadcasting Co. And some of its first series were every bit as conventional as "Married . . . With Children" was unconventional.

"We were just trying to make programs that would have a broad-based appeal," recalled Garth Ancier, Fox's first programming chief. "We felt if we just did original programming that was well done, that would be enough. But when you're building a network, that's not enough."

Ancier, who is currently programming head of the fledgling WB Network, paused, then laughed before adding, "We had to fumble around a bit before we found out who we were."

The search for identity is over.

As it celebrates its 10th anniversary in prime time, Fox is now a powerful and influential force on the television landscape. Its strategy of targeting the 18-to-34 and 18-to-49 age groups, for whom advertisers are willing to pay a premium, has won over viewers and critics alike with a succession of sexy, edgy, sometimes crude, sometimes stylish "alternative" shows such as "21 Jump Street," "The Simpsons," "Cops," "In Living Color, "Melrose Place," "The X-Files," "Martin," "Party of Five," "Living Single," "Beverly Hills, 90210," "New York Undercover" and the new "King of the Hill."

The key to Fox's success, former and current executives of the network agree, was the development of a "brand" name that characterized all of its programming. A Fox show came to be easily identifiable by its fresh, youthful look and approach to its characters and stories. That philosophy, they said, forever altered the nature of prime-time television.

"One of the most important things is that Fox changed the face of television marketing," said Peter Chernin, who succeeded Ancier as programming chief (1989-92) and is currently president of Fox's parent News Corp. "They did an amazing job of creating a brand image. It's one of the major brands of the last 10 years, and it forced the other networks to do the same. 'Must-See TV' on NBC came out of Fox."

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Fox's early going, however, was characterized by a lack of focus.

Fox Broadcasting Co., a vision of media mogul and Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, and Barry Diller, chief executive officer of Fox Inc., was established as a satellite-delivered, national programming service for independent TV stations. Murdoch predicted that Fox one day would be the fourth network to stand alongside ABC, CBS and NBC, but the growth was slow. For three months there was only one night a week of programming, and only two until the fall of 1989. The network did not reach seven nights of programming until January 1993.

The move to build Fox marked only the second time in 50 years that an attempt at putting together a fourth network had been made. The Allen B. DuMont Laboratories launched one in 1946 but it collapsed in 1955.

"There was no certain path to follow, no model we could use," Ancier said.

Ancier and his boss, Jamie Kellner, Fox's first president, approached noted producers such as James L. Brooks, Ed. Weinberger, Stephen J. Cannell, Gary David Goldberg, Michael Moye and Ron Leavitt about developing shows for Fox. "We told them, 'We'll let you do the show you want to do that the other networks won't let you do,' " Kellner recalled.

Current Fox Entertainment President Peter Roth, who was then president of Stephen J. Cannell Productions, said, "I remember when we were first approached by Fox and they said, 'We are not governed by the same rules. We want a strong, young male action series.' We just loved the notion of Fox. There was a rebellious spirit that they were taking on the other three networks."

Still, the direction of that rebel philosophy had not been fully determined, and the first year of Fox was marked by a wide variety of programming.

Shows ranged from the crass "Married . . . With Children" to the classy "The Tracey Ullman Show," a sketch comedy series showcasing the then-unheralded British entertainer, and included "Duet," a comedy about the budding relationship of a young couple, the White House comedy "Mr. President" starring George C. Scott, a horror show called "Werewolf," an adaptation of the movie "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and, from Cannell's company, "21 Jump Street," a teen-oriented drama about young cops starring the then-largely unknown Johnny Depp.

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