When I was little and it came to Broadcast Television, there were ONLY 3 networks: The Alphabet (ABC), The Eye (CBS) and The Peacock (NBC). By the mid-to-late 1980s, each of "the big three" had cornered their own niche audience. ABC aired several family-friendly shows (like The Wonder Years and Full House) plus other more mature fare for their 10PM time slots (see Moonlighting or thirtysomething). CBS seemed to have a wider audience but with special attention to both older demographics (especially with their Sunday schedule: 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote) and female audiences (with primetime soaps like Dallas and female-led sitcoms like Designing Women). And then NBC, who also had a wide audience, aired shows that were especially popular with both the critics AND the Emmy Awards (sitcoms like Cheers, The Cosby Show or The Golden Girls and dramas like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere or L.A. Law).
But there seemed to be one audience that was being ignored, at least as far as the powers-that-be at the 20th Century Fox studio were concerned. Several people (who were around college-age), were looking for programs that catered to their humor, to their style or even to their subversive nature. And so, a fledgling network was born. And now 25 years later, "the big three" have expanded into "the big four" (technically "the big five" when you count The CW, but it's not their anniversary!). In honor of FOX's 25th Anniversary, I would like to take you through their brief history by sharing with you what I believe are the 25 shows that have shaped FOX into what it is today. Some of them you could probably name right off and others are more like afterthoughts, but all 25 of them made their mark in the network's landscape and helped to re-shape what modern Television is all about.
IN THE BEGINNING...
21 Jump Street
These are the shows that birthed FOX. Married...With Children first aired on April 5, 1987 and 21 Jump Street aired a week later. The Simpsons first aired as animated shorts between the sketches on Tracey Ullman's comedy-variety show (which aired after Married...With Children) before gaining their very own animated sitcom two years later (a show that is still running today, by the way!). Married... was especially different as its humor was extremely controversial and graphic showing the complete dysfunction of the Bundy clan. 21 Jump Street, which is now more famous for launching the career of a man named Johnny Depp, was compared in its gritty style to NBC's Hill Street Blues but had a younger appeal. And as mentioned earlier, the history of The Simpsons is in some way the history of FOX itself.
America's Most Wanted
With a subversive sitcoms (both live and animated) and gritty cop dramas, FOX wanted to jump-the-gun (no pun intended!) before the reality show blitzkrieg. With both the FBI-led America's Most Wanted and the police docu-series COPS, FOX really was a forerunner before the other networks decided to produce cheaper (and more popular) reality shows.
STEAMY SPELLING SOAPS
Beverly Hills, 90210
When Johnny Depp left 21 Jump Street to have a film career, FOX needed some shows that had the same youth/teen appeal. Enter Aaron Spelling (who had massive hits with ABC like Charlie's Angels, Dynasty and The Love Boat). He was also looking to market programs to a teen audience (and one that could feature is young daughter in the cast!). With the original 90210 in 1990 and Melrose Place two years later, Spelling seemed to define teen viewing in the 1990s.
In Living Color
By the early 1990s, NBC had cornered the market in comedy-variety with Saturday Night Live (which by then had been running over 15 years!). FOX began with a variety show starring Tracey Ullman, but when that show's animated shorts eclipsed it in popularity, Ullman found herself without a job. But a few years later, comedian Keenan Ivory Wayans and his pals (including his brother Damon and sister Kim) created a sketch comedy series that appealed to a different audience...a multicultural audience. With its brash style and SNL-like sketches, the young cast of In Living Color became comedy superstars (especially Jim Carrey, then known as "James Carrey"). They even had hip-hop dancers known as the Fly Girls that personified their show's style (one of them was a young Jennifer Lopez!). In Living Color's popularity inspired FOX to try their hand at late night variety (to compete with SNL) and thence MADtv was born.
BRING IN 'DA FUNNY
Fresh off the success of In Living Color, FOX wanted to have more comedy shows that appealed to African-American audiences. Comedian Martin Lawrence, with his many different personalities, had a very successful sitcom that centered around his in-your-face style. To follow that, Living Single focused on the lives of 4 single African-American women (which included rap star Queen Latifah, former Facts of Life star Kim Fields and In Living Color regular Kim Coles). Both shows are still quite popular in syndication on various cable networks and are fondly remembered by those of us who grew up with these shows that helped change the face of sitcoms in the '90s.
RE-DEFINING THE GENRES (AND THE EMMYS!)
As I said above, NBC seemed to have the Emmy market covered with shows like Cheers, L.A. Law, Seinfeld and E.R. throughout my growth into adulthood. But FOX was fearless in trying to gain support from audiences and critics when it came to getting awards. With the sci-fi drama The X-Files, FOX had a major contender. Audiences took to it with rabid fascination and soon the awards followed. Emmys finally recognized it with a Best Drama Series nomination in its third season (1995) and two years later star Gillian Anderson won Best Actress in a Drama (making it the first major Emmy for FOX to win!). To follow that, David E. Kelley's romantic-dramedy Ally McBeal caused a pop culture fervor with its short skirts and dancing babies. The show became the first FOX series to win the top prize in 1999 when its second season received Best Comedy Series over the likes of Friends, Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond.
THE SIMPSONS HAVE SOME COMPANY
King of the Hill
The Simpsons opened so many doors for FOX and they knew it. In the late 1990s, the network started to build around the flagship series by creating an entire night of animated shows. Of the many animated sitcoms that have popped in and out around The Simpsons' popularity, two of them seemed to stick with audiences (and even some critics!). King of the Hill, from Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge, had a homespun humor and was more sitcom-oriented than even The Simpsons (with lessons learned at the end of every episode for both conservative propane dealer Hank Hill and his march-to-his-own-drummer son Bobby). Then there is Family Guy, Seth MacFarlane's raunchy and even-more subversive sitcom with its cutaway gags and ten-times the dysfunction of anyone in The Simpsons' hometown of Springfield. Both shows seemed to strengthen The Simpsons' popularity (and quality!) and therefore made themselves more prominent in the minds of those wanting a break from typical live-action fare.
That 70s Show
Malcolm In the Middle
Not to be completely dominated by animated sitcoms, FOX wanted to branch out with ensemble-heavy live-action comedies. With a nostalgic throwback (like its inspiration Happy Days), That 70s Show made stars out of its young ensemble which included Topher Grace, Laura Prepon, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. The show, which ended its run in 2006, is still extremely popular in syndicated airings. It is one of FOX's most popular shows in syndication (third only to The Simpsons and Family Guy). FOX's other popular live-action sitcom was Malcolm In the Middle. Similar to Married...With Children by showing the chaos of a semi-dysfunctional family, the show was very popular with audiences and garnered several Emmy nods for the two actors playing the parents Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston. Both actors have since shown their character-actor mettle on various projects from sitcoms to dramatic series to films (with Cranston winning 3 Emmys - so far! - for his dramatic work on AMC's critical hit Breaking Bad).
THE NEW CENTURY BRINGS MORE EMMYS
In the 2000s, bolstered by the major Emmy wins The X-Files and Ally McBeal garnered in the previous decade, FOX was not going to let it lie at just those two. With the action-packed spy-thriller series 24, FOX had a series that grabbed the critics' attention with its fascinating hook. The entire season of the show (24 episodes) was one hour of one day, constituting the series to basically flow in "real time." Season 5, known as "Day 5" in show's lexicon, was the highest rated season and won Best Drama Series (over major contenders like NBC's The West Wing and HBO's The Sopranos) as well as Best Actor in a Drama for star Kiefer Sutherland. As for Arrested Development, the short-lived but critically-beloved sitcom, the show put FOX back on Emmys radar after Ally McBeal ended. In 2003, Arrested Development's first season beat out Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond to the Best Comedy Series prize.
FOX'S NEWER YOUTH APPEAL
In the 2000s, the youth culture that FOX first appealed to back when it first began was now what you would call middle-aged. To grab that younger market that has since become an all-important demographic in the ratings race, FOX went back to "square one" with an Aaron Spelling-style teen drama. For four years in the middle of the decade, The O.C. became a pop culture phenomenon especially with teen audiences as the show centered around rich teens in Orange County and their bitter rivalries. But FOX's major hit with younger audiences was a little show that was basically a singing competition. American Idol, which was the U.S. version of the European hit Pop Idol, has dominated FOX Broadcasting over the past decade. With its crazy judges (Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul!) and star-making eliminations (from Kelly Clarkson to Carrie Underwood!), the show's power cannot be denied. Even with new judges (including former Fly Girl Jennifer Lopez!), the show still manages to garner the attention of a massive audience that craves reality competitions. Idol even has its copycats from NBC's The Voice to FOX's new Simon Cowell-import The X-Factor.
FOX'S PROCEDURAL STAPLES
Who said CBS could be the masters of procedural Television? FOX, thanks to both The X-Files and 24, have built part of their current reputation around shows that solve the case within the hour, the procedural. And they went beyond the typical police procedural that CBS was so good at (see CSI or NCIS). They branched it out into medical science and forensic anthropology. Led by a more dramatic Hugh Laurie, House M.D. was about a grouchy and people-repellent diagnostician who could solve any case put before him no matter how strange. After 8 years, Laurie is hanging up his cane and stethoscope as Dr. House after garnering 6 Emmy nominations (with a possible 7th to come!). Bones, House's sometime partner, centered on the genius-like mind of forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperence "Bones" Brennan and her knack for solving crimes with her FBI partner Sealy Booth. The character was loosely based on a lead character from the books by noted anthropologist Kathy Reichs (Brennan being a character she loosely based on herself!).
RE-DEFINING THE GENRES (YET AGAIN!)
Like The X-Files did in the 1990s, Fringe is once again re-defining what a sci-fi drama can be about. Part procedural (like Bones) but also part soap-opera drama (with its romantic entanglements and familial estrangements), Fringe is a complete original with its exploration of parallel universes and Roswell-ian creatures. The show has a large and vocal fanbase that has kept this "bubble show" going for four years and may very well get it a fifth season renewal. And like they did with Ally McBeal in the late '90s, FOX is once again re-defining the modern dramedy. Let us not forget Glee! Ryan Murphy's uber-popular (at least in its first season!) mega-musical comedy-drama has garnered so much attention that people have gotten sick of it fairly quickly (teen suicide storylines don't help either!). But the series has made its impression and will probably stick around for a fourth and maybe even fifth season (that teen market has money to burn people!). It also has pioneered (or at least co-pioneered) the use of other media when it comes to promoting the show (particularly iTunes and YouTube!).
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY FOX!
You have made TV life very interesting for the past 25 years!