PASADENA, Calif. – A clock from the ill-fated “Chevy Chase Show” – a gift from a TV-critic mentor who received it as a promotional item from Fox – hangs above the desk in my home office. It’s a reminder of the failures Fox faced in its early years and provides a marked contrast to the network’s success today (thank you, “American Idol”).
It’s been 19 years since Chase’s attempt to become a late-night star, which lasted a little more than a month in 1993. Fox itself celebrates its 25th anniversary with a two-hour special Sunday, 8 to 10 p.m.
Fox launched on Oct. 9, 1986, with “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” a preceding disaster to the “Chevy Chase Show” debacle, but the network didn’t enter prime time until April 5, 1987, hence, the 25-year celebration this year.
Shows at launch were long-running hit “Married ... with Children” and “The Tracey Ullman Show,” which gave birth to “The Simpsons” as a series of shorts. (“The Simpsons” in its current half-hour form debuted in 1990.) “21 Jump Street,” now a big-screen movie, premiered in the weeks that followed. Not bad for an inaugural lineup, considering that all three shows got renewed.
But Fox also had its share of clunkers, including “Mr. President” (George C. Scott played a gruff American president with Madeline Kahn as his flaky sister-in-law), “The New Adventures of Beans Baxter” (Jonathan Ward starred as a teenage spy), “Duet” (romantic comedy that introduced Alison LaPlaca as one-half of a yuppie couple) and “Werewolf” (college student transforms into werewolf, seeks to hunt down the originator of this bloodline).
Jamie Kellner, Fox’s president at its launch who would later go on to found The WB, told the Christian Science Monitor in 1987 that he wasn’t interested in winning in household ratings. All he cared about were the demos.
“(The other networks) try to appeal to everybody and we believe that has resulted in derivative, homogenized programming, although I applaud their occasional efforts to do unique things like ‘ALF,’ ” Kellner said. “We are going after the young-adult audience. A large percentage of the network audience is over 50, and, in order to win the household ratings game and be No. 1, they must appeal to the older viewers. ... We believe that the future of television is going to be directed toward pinpointed demographic audiences.”
It’s an approach ABC took 20 years earlier and one that broadcast and cable networks have largely embraced in the years since.
“Maybe Fox was the one to be the pioneer (for Generation X programming) just like ABC had been (for boomers) back in the 1960s with ‘The Mod Squad,’ ” TV Guide critic Matt Roush said in an interview for my 1997 book “Gen X TV: ‘The Brady Bunch’ to ‘Melrose Place’.” “To me, ABC seems like it’s always been there and to this generation, Fox has always been there. They’re not really going to remember (the time) before Fox was one of the networks – that’s like life before computers.”
Kellner followed through on his youth-targeted plan by launching “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Living Single,” “In Living Color” and “New York Undercover.”
For “Fox’s 25th Anniversary Special,” executive producer Don Mischer will reunite casts of past Fox series, including “Married ... with Children.” Other stars announced to appear include Calista Flockhart (“Ally McBeal”), Gabrielle Carteris, Shannen Doherty, Jason Priestley and Ian Ziering (“Beverly Hills, 90201”), Patrick Warburton (“The Tick”) and Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny (“The X-Files).
In a January interview at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Mischer had just begun planning the special. At the time, he expected it to run three hours; now it’s been cut to two. He promised a look back at both Fox’s successes and failures.
“I think it’s in Fox’s nature to be a little bit irreverent,” he said. “In 1986, everybody thought Fox was going to strike out. No one gave it any chance whatsoever. In 25 years, it’s amazing the amount of innovation that’s come from them in comedy, in drama – just look at what they’ve done in animation.”
Indeed, pre-“The Simpsons,” broadcast networks had largely avoided animated comedy since “The Flintstones” era in the 1960s. Other Fox innovations include a surge of single-camera comedies following the success of “Malcolm in the Middle,” the real-time conceit of “24” and the fantasy elements that were a hallmark of “Ally McBeal.”
“Fox really has made changes we can celebrate,” Mischer said. “We’d love to look at people who got their start on Fox and moved onto other things. I heard one saying, ‘Thank God, Fox canceled my show because now I’m a major movie star.’ ”
He declined to name the former Fox star.