Crazy like a Fox! It's impossible to overstate the influence this outrageous "fourth network" has had on TV since it stormed into prime time in April 1987 -- yes, 25 years ago, which accounts for Sunday night's clips-and-reunions salute, Fox's 25th Anniversary Special (April 22 at 8-10 p.m. ET)...
Hard to believe America survived before that, with just three broadcast networks and a few piddly cable channels airing mostly movies, reruns and sports. Cable originals? Keep dreaming. ABC, CBS and Fox were it, then. And they acted like it, delivering more of what already worked, aiming directly for the big fat safe mainstream middle.
Until Fox exploded that mold, daring to challenge The Big Three's Least Objectionable Programming with risky, riotous, edge-straddling stuff -- its chance-taking afforded by the largess of media mogul Rupert Murdoch's newspaper money. (Can you believe it? Newspapers were practically printing money then!)
If it took raising hell to raise his network's profile, the ostensibly conservative Murdoch (Fox News would launch in 1996) seemed happy to grab his piece of the TV profit pie that way.
Let's talk Married . . . With Children. Fox's debut-night sitcom subverted the era's "very special" family sentiment -- it was the anti-Cosby Show, with the bawdy adventures of its awful parents, awful kids and awful neighbors providing no lessons whatsoever. They killed Santa in the first Married . . . With Children Christmas episode, okay? (Fox replays the show's then-shocking 1987 premiere Sunday night at 7 ET.)
Let's talk The Simpsons, which revived prime-time animation big-time, 30 years after The Flintstones, with its equally untraditional nuclear clan of yelling yellow parents and bratty yellow kids. Suddenly, cartoons were not necessarily for kids anymore. Did pop culture touchstones ever play such a central role before this show skyrocketed onto the air in 1989, riffing off all things hot-and-not? Just ask South Park characters in search of a fresh plot: "Simpsons did it!"
Let's talk youth drama, not just drama with teens alongside adults, but dramas about the kids. 21 Jump Street was the first -- kids as cops, with star Johnny Depp catapulted to movie stardom (see photo at top of this column). Then came Beverly Hills 90210, high school soap (at right), followed by Melrose Place, post-school soap, and Party of Five, kids-on-their-own soap. Want a youth audience? Make serious shows about them. (Would The WB otherwise have aired Buffy the Vampire Slayer?)
Let's talk Fox Thursdays in the '90s, with shows aimed squarely at black viewers -- black-cast sitcoms (Martin), multiracial sketchcoms (In Living Color), and dramas of color (New York Undercover), pointing the way for other new networks (UPN, WB) and cablers to focus on under-served audiences.
Let's talk The X-Files, reestablishing tantalizing adult science-fiction 30 years after The Twilight Zone and, by giving conspiracy buffs everywhere a weekly fix, cementing TV's whole overarching-conspiracy genre. Hello, Lost. (Honorable mention: Fox's earlier societal sci-fi saga Alien Nation, better than the film that spawned it.)
Let's talk reality. Cops and America's Most Wanted proved huge audiences could flock to unscripted network fare, a decade before the competition craze explode Survivor and American Idol.
Fox even cooked up the coolest western since maybe ever, in Bruce Campbell's crazy steampunk hour, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (at right). Not to mention one of TV's all-time most brilliant but canceled (and indescribably sublime) comedies, Bakersfield P.D., with Giancarlo Esposito and Ron Eldard, and most gleefully warped dramas, Profit, starring Adrian Pasdar as a corporate sociopath.
And Fox isn't even 10 years old by the time all these shows premiered.
We could go on and on, through That '70s Show and 24, through Ally McBeal and Arrested Development, through Family Guy and Firefly, through The Tick and The Simple Life, through Titus, Bernie Mac, Malcolm in the Middle and House.
And still, Fox isn't even 20 years old.
Today? You think another network would have stuck with Fringe? Or Raising Hope? Would another network have ordered such out-there gems as Lone Star in the first place?
Because time flies, it's now easy to figure Fox has been around forever. But it hasn't. The fourth network's gradual but steady success -- it took Fox six years to expand from two nights a week to all seven (Fox still ends prime time nightly an hour before The Big Three) -- emboldened others to go where TV had never really gone before.
Whether that's a producer pitching a truly bizarre concept, a show inventing its own genre, a network demanding non-traditional casting, or a channel designed for a little-served demographic, they've got Fox to thank for proving it could be done.
And we've got Fox to thank for doing it in the first place.
Cheap Thrills Dept. -- Check out these promos from the very start of Fox!
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