TV game-changer Fox marks 25th year Sunday

By Lynn Elber

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - This undated frame from the Fox series "The Simpsons," shows the popular cartoon family posing in front of their home, from left, Lisa , Marge , Maggie, Homer and Bart Simpson. Television networks are masters of self-promotion, so it's no surprise that Fox is carving out two prime-time hours Sunday April 22, 2012 to celebrate its 25th year

Fox Broacasting Co., Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Television networks are masters of self-promotion, so it's no surprise that Fox is carving out two prime-time hours Sunday to celebrate its 25th year.

But why quibble over the hoopla planned for the 8-10 p.m. EDT showcase? With Ryan Seacrest as ringmaster, let's give a shout-out to the stars of "Married ... With Children," ''The X Files," ''In Living Color," ''Ally McBeal," ''Beverly Hills, 90210," ''House" and "24."

And, in center stage, the enduring "The Simpsons" and TV's great game-changer, "American Idol," are taking a bow.

It's an impressive showing for a network that's less than half the age of competitors NBC, CBS and ABC. As analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media sees it, Fox hasn't just met expectations, "it's exceeded them."

"Of the major networks, it's the only one that can bring in younger audiences on a regular basis," Adgate said. "They have brought out some breakthrough shows ... They've really done things that the other three networks wouldn't have done with their programming."

From a modest October 1986 debut with "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" and its first night of prime-time programming in April 1987, Fox weathered industry skepticism and midlife crisis ("Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" and other groaners) to make its case for survival and success.

Fox proved that, yes, there was room for a fourth U.S. broadcast network, three decades after Dumont dissolved in 1955 and left the Big Three networks to slice up an increasingly rich pie.

Yes, a broadcast network could shrink its prime-time lineup to the hours between 8-10 p.m. ET, allowing lucrative local newscasts control of the 10 o'clock hour, and prosper.

Yes, airing outrageously cheeky fare — ranging from clever ("Tracey Ullman") to exploitive ("Temptation Island") — would lure the 18-to-49-year-old audience that make advertisers swoon. Fox became profitable after just three years of operation, according to "Outfoxed," the 1990 book by Alex Ben Block detailing the network's birth.

That success turned competitors into copycats, extending Fox's influence across the medium.

The network's creation was "a real trial by fire for all of us," said Garth Ancier, Fox's inaugural programming chief. "My mentor at NBC, Brandon Tartikoff, thought I was crazy, and he was probably right."

The challenge: "How do we carve the audience in a different way from NBC, ABC and CBS? How do you grab people by their shirt collars and drag them over to an alternative?" Ancier said.

A key answer was development of a stable of reality shows including "America's Most Wanted" and "Cops," the latter using portable video cameras to reimagine the scripted police drama.

Rupert Murdoch, the News Corp. media mogul behind Fox, also urged his executives to look outside the U.S. market for ideas, Ancier recalled.

"He's always been an internationally focused guy and knows what's working in other countries," he said.

That global focus helped bring "American Idol" to Fox from the U.K. in June 2002, but not before Fox found itself on shaky ground, said Gail Berman, its programming head from 2000-05.

"When I came in, the network was not in particularly good shape," she recalled, with then-News Corp. President Peter Chernin cautioning her that she had to boost company morale along with ratings (although Fox had reached No. 1 with teenagers and adults 18 to 34).

"Having been the fourth network, there was a sense that being at the bottom of the barrel was an OK place to be," Berman said. "We built a great team of people that could really change the culture of 'When Animals Attack' to the culture of 'American Idol.'"

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