The First Twenty Years - Broadcasting & Cable

The First Twenty Years

Author:
Publish date:

Fox Broadcasting became the “fourth network” in the fall of 1986, when it launched The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. That didn't work. Neither did most other Fox shows in the early years. But by taking chances and pushing the envelope, Fox found its groove and has claimed the 18-49 Nielsen crown for the past two seasons. That's because of the Fox attitude that has been there from 21 Jump Street to House. David Goetzl and Wayne Friedman talked to the architects of Fox's framework to learn how they did it. And on page 26, Fox sports chief David Hill talks to Ben Grossman about Fox's pivotal event: grabbing NFL rights from CBS.

Barry the Fox

In his decade at the helm of Paramount, Barry Diller craved a network and wanted the studio to buy the Metro­media group of stations in major markets to serve as a launch pad. Paramount wouldn't spend the money, a refusal that stuck in his craw.

“It was the complete inspiration for Fox,” Diller says.

In 1985, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch acquired Metromedia, and Diller became chairman/CEO of Fox.

He pursued Jamie Kellner to lead the day-to-day operations. Kellner was president of Orion Pictures syndication, not from one of the networks, and wouldn't be bound by the clubby, bloated traditions of ABC, NBC and CBS. Fox was going to be different.

“We said we wanted to be an alternative to the three networks,” Diller says, “not just a fourth network.”

Kellner, in turn, brought on two risk-taking programmers in Garth Ancier and Kevin Wendle. They helped develop the type of unconventional shows that Diller credits with changing the network landscape by placing an increased emphasis on reaching a younger-skewing audience.

“For the early years of Fox, both were extremely involved in all program aspects and, along with Jamie Kellner, were the key players,” Diller says. “Programming was the challenge. It took us about a year or so and several failed shows to get our voice, but once we put Married…With Children on the air, we knew we had it.”

The Tracey Ullman Show, paired with Married…With Children on Sundays, would become a building block for Fox. But giving the greenlight for Executive Producer Jim Brooks to turn “The Simpsons” animated shorts into a series was a major step for the cost-conscious Diller.

“Jim Brooks had the idea and insisted on 13 firm shows, which was a very big commitment at the time, and we said yes,” he says. “Remarkable—and beyond remarkable—is that it continues to be great. It's probably the greatest creative and financial performance in the history of television.”

Coat-Hanger Network

Jamie Kellner, president/COO of the network from its 1986 launch until 1993, remembers the day NBC's Brandon Tartikoff finished a talk before a group of advertisers and introduced him as the next speaker, needling him about Fox's collection of low-power UHF affiliates.

“He took a coat hanger out and bent it in half and said, 'If anybody's having trouble getting Fox, just bring one of these home and attach it to your television set,'” Kellner recalls.

The television world had been skeptical of Fox all along. (So was the FCC, which in fact, had earlier concluded in a study that a fourth network was economically a nonstarter.)

“The Big Three were considered so far ahead that the question was, could anybody catch up to them?” says Kellner.

He well remembers Married...With Children, the saucy, racy salute to a Chicago shoe salesman and his blue-collar family. It was pitched to Kellner by creators Ron Leavitt and Michael G. Moye, who referred to it simply as “Not The Cosby Show,” the squeaky-clean sitcom the duo “basically hated.”

Some luck was involved. In 1989, a Michigan housewife “married with children” tuned in to the show and was shocked it was on at 8:30 p.m. in the so-called family viewing hour.

“I thought some porn channel suddenly appeared on my television,” says Terry Rakolta. She protested, to Fox and then to advertisers. McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola pulled ads off the show. But her protest got publicity and turned a comedy with so-so ratings into a hit, particularly with 18-34 men.

Says Rakolta, “I'm a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences.” The sitcom lasted 11 ribald seasons.

Kellner got lucky with another early show. Reviewing the dailies during filming of the pilot of 21 Jump Street, he and his team decided the original male lead wasn't working. Johnny Depp was the replacement.

“It was a historic moment for everybody,” Kellner says.

Then, in the fall of 1990, Fox—by that time, on five nights a week—started to gain appeal among young females with the guilty pleasure originally called Beverly Hills High, from Darren Star and Aaron Spelling. Renamed Beverly Hills 90210, it became a sensation and led to another major success in Melrose Place.

The “coat-hanger network” was well on its way.

The Art of Being Different

In 1986, a bunch of new TV executives were told to go to the third floor of the old Executive Building on the Fox lot to start a broadcasting network. But there wasn't much to work with.

“I remember there was an old tear-sheet board, where you write things and then hang them up to look at. You see them all the time at corporate retreats,” says Garth Ancier, then-president of entertainment. “I thought I'd use it to put up the network schedules.”

Early programming philosophy was simple, he says. Whatever the other networks did, Fox wanted to do the opposite.

In Living Color, in particular, helped boost Fox. “The idea was to do an Afro-American version of Laugh-In,” Ancier says. “It was Keenen [Ivory Wayans] who pushed the political-correctness issues. That's why it worked.

“Everyone knew we had to be different,” he adds. “We started a network with no standards department.” Sometimes that was dangerous. In one scene on 21 Jump Street, Johnny Depp's character was urinating in a bathroom and, “while he was talking,” Ancier says, “you could hear the sound of the peeing.” That scene never aired.

The Economical, Enduring Success of 'Cops'

As John Langley prepared his show on the everyday confrontations that police officers face, he went in search of a catchy theme song.

“I wanted a counterpoint to police operations and the impressions and feelings they would invoke,” says the creator/executive producer of Cops. “I thought reggae music would be great.”

In Miami, Langley stumbled on a track from struggling Jamaican group Inner Circle. Hooked, he licensed “Bad Boys” for the pilot.

The song has become part of pop culture and a signature of the reality show that made a much hyped debut in mid March 1989 and never left.

Nearly 700 Cops episodes have aired on Saturdays since then, and the interest in “hero” officers' nabbing real lawbreakers continues. The show is still a time-period winner in a crime block with America's Most Wanted, where, in a sense, people can play along by helping host John Walsh catch fugitives. As of last week, viewers had helped bring in 911 thugs.

Cops has its roots in Fox network's second year, when network programmer Stephen Chao grew intrigued by the live drug busts hosted by Geraldo Rivera that Langley was producing.

Soon, Chao escorted Langley to see Chairman/CEO Barry Diller, who gave the greenlight to shoot a pilot.

Helping Langley's cause was Fox's interest in low-cost programming (the $100,000 license fee then was about a fifth that of a scripted show) and a writers' strike.

“The show had no narration, no script and no actors, so even if the actors went on strike in sympathy with the writers, it didn't matter,” Langley says. “It was also a cheap program to produce, with the lowest—probably, still to this day, the lowest—license fee on network television.”

It has been a staple on Fox's Saturday night for 19 years, so automatic that rarely do Fox programming executives, including current Entertainment President Peter Liguori, even call Langley.

“As long as it's going well, they can ignore me,” Langley says, “ and I'm happy to be ignored. It's kind of the last thing to worry about if you're programming. I haven't had one meeting with Peter since he's been there.”

No matter. On Oct. 31, Fox renewed Cops for a 20th season.

Salhany Plays The Game

Fox's successful NFL negotiations evolved into a game of hide-and-seek for some executives.

In 1993, Rupert Murdoch didn't know it, but he had outbid NBC by several hundred thousand dollars to get the NFC games. He knew it was a good offer, but he was nervous when the NFL took its sweet time making up its mind.

He decided to ask his chief lieutenants whether he should bid more. But hearing that was his intention sent Lucie Salhany, then-chairman of Fox Broadcasting Co., and Chase Carey, director of Fox Entertainment, scurrying to the far reaches of Fox's headquarters.

“Chase and I had to hide in one of the back offices so he wouldn't find us,” says Salhany. “We didn't want Rupert to bid more because we already bid so much. We knew we'd get it.”

The NFL is made up of two conferences, the AFC and the NFC. Initially, Fox had thought it was going after the AFC, which NBC had—not realizing until the last moment that the much stronger NFC conference was in play. Fox bid $1.58 billion for four years' rights to the NFC. “We were giddy,” says Salhany. It was the biggest moment for Fox when I was there.”

When Fox made its bid, Salhany couldn't read the reaction of NFL executives in the room—until Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones widened his eyes.

“The bid was so high. Everyone just stared at us,” says Salhany. “Then Jerry Jones nearly jumped over the table to shake our hands and hug us.”

In addition to the NFL, while Salhany was there, Fox launched what seemed like a small niche show, The X-Files. The network also expanded its primetime schedule from four to seven nights.

“We suffered a little bit,” says Salhany, in the months that followed the move to seven nights. “But we had to go. Someone else would have stepped in. Paramount and MCA were trying to do another network to compete with Fox. But [Paramount parent company] Gulf + Western pulled out of the deal.”

Grushow's Marketing Dare

Sandy Grushow was a young film-marketing executive at 20th Century Fox, not very aware of the little Fox network when, in 1989, Barry Diller, then-chairman/CEO of Fox Inc., called: The network wanted him.

“I had sweating palms,” says Grushow. “You didn't turn down Barry Diller. He was extraordinarily powerful and persuasive.”

He recalls that, the week he joined Fox Broadcasting, Variety reported that the network was already in the hole $100 million. That week, he had his first face-to-face meeting with Diller and Fox Broadcasting President/COO Jamie Kellner.

“Diller asked me what I thought about Fox,” says Grushow. “I said, while the promos were great, it wasn't enough: We were just talking to ourselves; we needed some off-air marketing. I suggested we spend $5 million.”

That's when all the air left the room.

“I think you could have picked Jamie off the carpet,” Grushow says. “How could I possibly consider investing that kind of money when the network was gushing losses?”

Come back with some ideas, Diller told him. So Grushow returned after developing some broad marketing schemes with 20th Century Fox's ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, and restated his belief that the company should be more aggressive.

“I told them, if they weren't prepared to spend money, I might as well go back to the film division,” he says. “I could tell that this scored with them. They gave me $3.5 million.”

One of those marketing schemes paid off a year later when Grushow persuaded his old 20th Century Fox boss and mentor Tom Sherak to run an episode of The Simpsons in front of a new theatrical release, Weekend at Bernie's.

Grushow remembers standing at the back of the Arco Theater in Hollywood in 1989, watching the trailer. “The audience went nuts,” he says. “It was a goose-bump moment.”

Berman, Grushow And Taking A Chance on 'American Idol'

In the fall of 2001, Fox took a pitch about bringing a British singing competition to the U.S. For some months, the project stalled. Then, after urging from Rupert Murdoch, programming chief Gail Berman and Sandy Grushow took a chance.

Grushow, then-chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group, had his doubts about whether viewers would go for an American adaptation of the British hit reality competition, Pop Idol.

But at first he thought it wasn't much of a risk: Pitching the show to Fox, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) initially proposed skipping the license fee in exchange for allowing the show's producers to retain national advertising time.

But when CAA changed its tune and demanded a license fee, Rupert Murdoch proposed a more expedient solution.

“He said, 'Wait. Liz [Murdoch's daughter] told me about this show,'” Grushow recalls. “'Why don't we just buy it?'”

That summer, ratings zoomed, and buzz roared for American Idol. The blockbuster finale posted a 30 share in the 18-49 demo.

“It just kept on working, getting bigger and bigger. And of course, the voting was working, and that had never been done before,” Berman says. “It was as good as it gets in network-ville.”

The phenomenon would lead to the crowning moment in Berman's five-year run as entertainment president: In the 2004-05 season, for the first time, Fox finished No. 1 among broadcast networks in the 18-49 demo.

“We always tried to look at things from an angle of what could distinguish the program and make it unique to Fox,” says Berman, now president of Paramount Pictures. “How would a medical show, for example, be unique to Fox? How would a CIA show be unique to Fox?

“It's an extraordinary thing to be part of a team that brought a network to No. 1 for the first time,” she adds. “It's a fantastic legacy to be a part of.”

Related