FOX MAKES ITS SLY, CRAFTY DEBUT
“We don’t use the N word,” confided Garth Ancier, the 29-year-old TV programming executive whose brief career goes on line tonight.
Ancier’s N word is network , as in ABC, CBS and NBC.
“We call ourselves a ‘satellite-delivered national program service,’ ” said the young man with the Macintosh computer and the big white office on the 20th Century Fox lot in West Los Angeles. “That has certain advantages. And besides, we’re so small by comparison to the three networks that it doesn’t apply to someone who programs just two nights a week.”
Beginning tonight, network also will mean the new Fox Broadcasting Co., which is making its $100-million prime-time debut with two half-hour comedies on KTTV-TV Channel 11 and 109 other independent stations across the country.
The two shows--an embittered, dispiriting look at the stereotypical sitcom family called “Married . . . With Children” and an offbeat hybrid of sitcom, music videos and late-night-style sketches called “The Tracey Ullman Show"--are the vanguard of eight new shows that Fox plans to roll out on Sunday and Saturday nights during the next two months.
Both shows will be telecast three times during the evening, beginning at 7 p.m PDT and repeated at 8 and 9. Fox hopes that its unusual scheduling will give viewers an opportunity to catch the two new programs some time throughout the evening.
Tonight’s premieres also mark the beginning of Fox’s efforts to evolve into a scaled-down version of a fourth national network. For the time being, Fox will be a network without a news department, without sports, without daytime programs.
But Fox will be the first and only network based in Los Angeles and the first serious challenger to the Big Three video hegemony in more than three decades.
“There are tremendous uphill battles,” said Ancier, whose programs will appear on a hodge-podge of new and old, VHF and UHF stations with traditional ratings that range from so-so to nil. “There are technical and built-in audience obstacles. This hasn’t been done since before I was born, with the old DuMont Network.”
Then again, the financial situation of network TV has not been so precarious since the 1950s either. All three of the existing networks are facing declining profit margins, well-publicized cutbacks and what some observers say is a permanent restructuring of the TV industry.
“The time to get into anything that’s cyclical is when things are difficult,” said Fox Inc. Chairman Barry Diller, 44, the phenomenally successful ex-ABC executive who moved to Fox after engineering the resurgence of Paramount Pictures in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
“Networking is a sound business,” he said, despite the problems of ABC, CBS and NBC, which Diller calls “dinosaurs.”
“They are going through and will continue to go through reconfigurations and a great deal of turmoil,” Diller said.
Diller is the driving force behind the new network and the man who is likely to be identified with its success or failure.
“I’ve wanted to do this for many years,” said Diller, who acknowledges a deep emotional attachment to the new effort.
“At anything that threatens it, my reactions are strange--very protective, very nurturing,” he said. “When I think anybody could put a piece of it at risk, I get very paternalistic--like I’ll break their arm.”
Fox executives concede that no members of the viewing public have been clamoring for a fourth network, but the push behind the venture is the advertising community’s desires for an alternative to the high costs of the Big Three.
“It’s close to a sellers’ market and that’s definitely working to the advantage of Fox,” said Don Mohr, vice president and director of network broadcasting for the New York advertising agency of Saatchi & Saatchi Compton Inc.
“They’re introducing their new slate in spring at a very opportune time,” Mohr said. “I mean the marketplace has been very tight and there’s been a lot of demand. There are some clients who may not get everything they want on the three networks and this gives them an opportunity for exposure.”
Furthermore, explained Fox Broadcasting President Jamie Kellner, 39, the new network’s criteria for success are far lower than ABC’s, CBS’ or NBC’s.
The networks, he said, need much higher ratings--"box-car numbers,” he calls them--for hit shows. Fox, he said, will be happy and successful with ratings of half or less than hit network series.
“The networks,” he said, “are companies that lose hundreds of millions of dollars in news, sports and elsewhere. They have public-relations departments that are bigger than our whole company.”
The financial force behind the lean Fox operation is Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media baron whose worldwide empire grew yet again last week with his offer to buy Harper & Row publishers.
In 1985, Murdoch bought half of Fox, one of Hollywood’s largest movie and TV studios, for $250 million. He bought the other half shortly thereafter. Then on May 6, 1986, he paid a mind-boggling $2 billion for six Metromedia TV stations--KTTV in Los Angeles along with other stations in New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, Houston and Dallas.
Murdoch and Diller went out and lined up other independent stations and introduced “Late Night With Joan Rivers” in October.
Instant network. Sort of.
All has not gone off without a hitch.
Ratings for Rivers’ show have fallen far below early projections, and two weeks ago Fox brought in a new producer for the program. Fox also lost out in the bidding for rights to National Football League games next season to a combine of ABC and its cable-sports subsidiary, ESPN.
On top of that, Fox’s prime-time rollout represents a tremendous gamble in traditional TV terms. The new network is premiering as many news shows as ABC did last fall.
As a rule of thumb, networks consider a new season successful if a third of their new programs take off with the audience, but seasons with only one or two hits are common.
Program chief Ancier thinks Fox may have a breakthrough show in “Ullman,” a wacky British comedienne who has made several appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman.”
“Married” looks more problematic. The show from Embassy Television--what’s left of the production company built by Norman Lear--is a kind of anti-"Cosby” view of the American family with angry efforts at humor.
In a pilot screened for reporters, the husband and wife traded barbs about everything from men’s anatomies to premenstrual stress. The couple has a pair of money-grubbing kids who banter with “Commie” jokes.
Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales said the “nasty-minded, overacted and poorly cast sitcom . . . gets the schedule off on a rousing limp.”
After tonight’s telecasts, Fox plans to introduce two more new shows this month, a fifth Sunday show in May and its Saturday schedule on May 30.
Next Sunday, “21 Jump Street,” an action-adventure show, will join the lineup with a two-hour pilot movie. The two comedies also will be shown. On April 19, the romantic comedy “Duet” will have its premiere with a special one-hour episode. On April 26, Fox will telecast the four shows plus the sneak preview of a Saturday show.
In May, George C. Scott’s “Mr. President” joins the Sunday lineup. On May 30, Fox will introduce its Saturday lineup of “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Karen’s Song,” “Werewolf” and “The New Adventures of Beans Baxter.”
But what if a show, or the schedule, bombs?
“I think that would be very unfortunate--obviously,” understated Ancier, who has only two replacement shows in the wings. “I don’t think we have a disaster on the schedule. I hope I’m right.”
Diller is more realistic: “We’re going to go for a long time. If all the shows we put on Sunday fail, we’ll put on all new shows. If those fail, we’ll put on all new shows.”
He also speaks in terms of decades before he or others will know whether Fox Broadcasting reaches the pinnacle of power and influence of the Big Three.
“If you look back 20 or 30 years, then you might say, ‘Gee, I was there at the beginning.’ But at historic moments, do people really say, ‘This is an historic moment?’ ”