Married... with Articles

April 5, 1997

Happy birthday, Fox! The `4th network' marks its first 10 years

Television News By FRAZIER MOORE AP Television Writer NEW YORK (AP) - From its first moments on the air, Fox meant to strike a different chord. Which it did, as young Bud Bundy bellowed ``Die Commie bimbo!'' while he held a plastic knife to his sister Kelly's throat. ``Married ... with Children,'' which premiered with that outcry on April 5, 1987, lives on a decade later as network TV's longest-running entertainment series. Meanwhile, Fox - which entered prime time as a ``satellite-delivered national program service'' offering ``Married'' and four other shows every Sunday - has shed its ``weblet'' status. It has become a seven-night, 15-hour network with Sports and News divisions and a slate of kids' fare. From the start, Fox targeted choice demographics - the younger viewers advertisers love. It has continued to do so with such savvy that during February, despite its standing as the No. 4 network in TV households, Fox captured a second-place finish in the blue-chip category of 18-to-49-year-old viewers. This, as an executive of top-ranked NBC took a poke at ''The World's Scariest Police Chases'' and other Fox cheese, ''most of which we would try not to put on the air.'' But Rupert Murdoch's network has never hesitated to blaze its own trail, even one that might sometimes seem the low road. It has never been afraid to try new things, then try them again and again. It is ``Non-stop Fox,'' a slogan that implies not only determination but also wretched excess. Seemingly anything can happen on Fox - providing it's not a gay kiss on ''Melrose Place.'' Fox is the network of attitude and hormones. And proud of it. ''Viewers can only mourn the passing of yet another wasted opportunity to expand boundaries and visions,'' moaned The New York Times after Fox's first month, setting a tone for critics' lamentations that have shadowed the network ever since. But as anyone can see by now, Fox HAS expanded boundaries and visions - and not only into the swamp. Fox has set itself apart as the not-so-old network, the not-all-white network, the network with no past nimbly re-inventing its future. Consider just a pair of audience (and critical) favorites the Big Three networks never would have touched: ''The Simpsons'' and ``The X-Files.'' Or take the measure of the network by the nature of its flops. If Fox unleashed dogs like ``Woops!,'' ``Models, Inc.'' and ``Daddy Dearest,'' it can also be saluted for attempting ``Bakersfield PD'' and ``South Central,'' ``Profit'' and ``Tribeca,'' all noble efforts despite their low ratings. But finally the wonder of Fox is not that it has had its failures (starting with its actual first series, ``The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers''). The surprise was that Fox prospered despite them. Not bad for ``a coat-hanger network,'' which is how NBC programming head Brandon Tartikoff dismissed Fox at its launch. Tartikoff was only one of many skeptics Fox caught short with its success. Another was producer Fred Silverman, whose legendary ``golden gut'' told him, ``Fox will fail.'' And Grant Tinker agreed. ``I'm not convinced it will work,'' the NBC chairman confided to a magazine 10 years ago. Today, Tinker laughs about a phone call he got soon after the magazine came out. It was from Fox founding chairman Barry Diller. ``In the friendliest way he told me, `Gee, I read what you said, and I really wish you wouldn't do that.' I said, `OK,' and I shut up about it.'' But Tinker hadn't changed his mind. He explains that it was 1979 when the Big Three networks' combined share of audience peaked at about 90 percent of the nation's viewers. After that, their share began eroding as cable caught on. ``When Fox started up, I thought, If WE'RE all losing audience, where is the appetite for a fourth network? I underestimated their ability to find an audience of their own,'' Tinker concedes. ``I'm still surprised they did it so well.'' ``It's kind of amazing Fox is doing as well as they are,'' echoes Katey Sagal, in her 11th season on ``Married ... With Children.'' When she landed the role of spandexed wife and mother Peg Bundy, Sagal had slim hope for the future of her sitcom. It was raucous and bawdy and, besides, ``it was on a new network - who knew what that was about? ``I remember when Ed (O'Neill, her co-star) and I did bowling alleys to promote the show. Back then, you couldn't get the Fox network except with little rabbit ears on your television set.'' Ten years later, everybody gets it. But, oddly enough, the hypesters at Fox aren't milking this milestone for all it's worth. So don't tune in Saturday night looking for an anniversary gala featuring Katey Sagal and David Duchovny as co-hosts, clips from Fox's glorious first decade and appearances by Fox's stars. There won't be one. Instead, Fox will be airing a rodeo special: "The Bull Riders Only World Championship". But maybe this is just another way of telling Fox's story: the maverick network that never got thrown.
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