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10 Years? Cowabunga!

Who would have thought the upstart network would have such a good run in its first decade? Ah, youth.

March 30, 1997|Howard Rosenberg | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

'Beverly Hills, 90210," someone once observed, has characters "you'd like to hit with a giant cream pie." And "Melrose Place," the same observer noted, "is a case where twentysomething refers to IQ as well as age."

Who originated these opinions of drama series that went on to flourish on Fox? My memory is a little hazy here, but I'm fairly certain it was me.

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How apt a metaphor this is for Fox in its unsteady infancy: the Rodney Dangerfield of networks, winning no respect in many circles, getting clobbered by critical cream pies and hearing from false prophets that long-term survival as a fourth network was a very long shot and that anything approaching parity with older, established ABC, CBS and NBC was unthinkable.

Wrong. Started by Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller, the Fox network invaded prime time a decade ago this week and is now the most precocious 10-year-old in the history of television.

It has shrewdly courted and exploited the strength of former independent stations in an increasingly splintered TV universe. It has successfully poached on the older networks' monopoly of televising glamour sports, consummating massive pacts with the NFL and professional baseball. It has aired the Emmys, symbolically the very essence of mainstream TV. And although Fox remains fourth in prime-time ratings this season, figures from Nielsen Media Research show it averaging a healthy 12 million viewers per hour of prime time, compared to 13.7 million for ABC, 13.9 million for CBS and 15.4 million for NBC.

Although the gap in overall advertising rates is still significant, Fox is drawing ever closer in raw audience. Its most popular series, "The X-Files," ranked 10th nationally in the Nielsens two weeks ago, for example, and was even nearer the apex of prime-time rankings for smart, exhilarating TV.

And don't forget that Fox programs have those young demographics that quicken the pulses of so many advertisers, with season figures showing it tied with ABC for second place among the 18-to-49 crowd, trailing only NBC.

No wonder that Fox, itself still a callow kiddie, is now a role model for the still-diapered WB and UPN networks.

Hardly all of Fox's baby shoes qualify for bronzing, however. Rerunning its decade of programs in my memory, the acronym CARRY comes to mind: Creative, Asinine, Raunchy, Race-minded and Young.

CREATIVE

Fox's most vivid legacy is that of a feisty network that took risks, as upstarts tend to do, while its older, fatter rivals sat complacently on their dwindling audience shares.

Not that taking chances always paid off in Nielsens. Nothing exemplified Fox's willingness to stand by a series whose ratings lagged far behind its thunderbolts of brilliance than "The Tracey Ullman Show," whose 1987-90 run exposed U.S. viewers to a uniquely gifted comedic actress from England.

Some of Fox's most inventive series were even better-kept secrets, one of them the Ferris Bueller-inspired "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," a bracingly fresh, strange comedy about a savvy high school student whose environment and exotic supporting characters emerged in a milieu of odd camera angles and unusual visual and sound effects.

Another was "The Ben Stiller Show," a short-lived revue largely featuring bright, sometimes-hilarious parodies of movies and TV. Still another was that bent beauty "Bakersfield P.D.," whose half-black, half-Italian protagonist was partnered with a redneck. And at its best, "The Edge" was a series whose dark, even mean sketches teetered hilariously and perilously on the margins of comedy. So much so that its savage ridiculing of "Beverly Hills, 90210" and one of its stars, Tori Spelling, so outraged her father and the Fox drama's powerful executive producer, Aaron Spelling, that he reportedly demanded a public apology.

Meanwhile, "America's Most Wanted" blazed a trail in prime time for manhunt-type series that at once reflected and helped fatten a national obsession with crime, as did the network's subsequent "Cops," a prototype for a brigade of similar "reality" series that would surface in the '90s.

When it comes to Fox's boldness leading directly to both ratings and longevity, however, two of its series stand out in particular. One is its science-fiction noir phenomenon, "The X-Files," the other a cartoon whose principal UFO is named Homer. Its name: "The Simpsons," of course.

"Beverly Hills, 90210" has the ritzier ZIP Code, but Springfield, USA, is home to Fox's true upper crust, the Simpsons, who for years have greeted you in one of the funniest, most distinctive, most subversive comedies ever to travel the airwaves. And one whose emergence in 1989 gave Fox its first broad slathering of credibility, as "The Simpsons" almost immediately generated a merchandising boom, from T-shirts to coffee mugs, that helped burn its crude-looking characters deep into the U.S. psyche.

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