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On the Beachhead : Fox Broadcasting Co. Mounts an Assault on ABC, CBS and NBC--and on TV Viewers as Well

<i> Lee Margulies is a Times TV writer and editor. </i>

ONE YEAR AFTER entering the prime-time programming wars in a bold effort to establish a fourth commercial television network, Fox Broadcasting Co. is bleeding red ink--but making what its commanding general considers satisfactory progress.

“It’s like the Normandy invasion,” says Fox chairman Barry Diller. “We’re on the beach. We are encountering all the problems that you encounter on a heavily fortified coast. But we are creeping toward the hedgerows.”

The analogy is apt. Fox’s attempt to carve out a niche in the fiercely competitive television-programming market represents an assault not only on the Axis powers of ABC, CBS and NBC but also on the nation’s TV viewers, whose loyalties already are being divided by cable television, pay-TV and videocassettes. And the young invader has certainly taken some hits, most notably with its 18-month-old late-night show, now in its fourth incarnation after flops that included “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” and the short-lived “Wilton North Report.”

The weapons in the prime-time battle are programs. Though non-lethal (at least in small doses), they can be every bit as expensive (average cost: $800,000 per hour) as the sort used by the Defense Department, and their design and deployment can be just as crucial in determining victory or defeat.

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Fox’s weapons of choice increasingly are programs that are distinctively but not radically different from those on the Big Three--either in subject matter, style or demographic appeal.

When Fox was pitched last year, for example, on a comedy series by Earl Pomerantz, an award-winning writer and former producer of NBC’s mega-hit “The Cosby Show,” executives jumped at the opportunity and ordered seven episodes. When the series, called “Family Man,” finally arrived on television last month, however, it was on ABC.

What happened in the interim, says Garth Ancier, president of programming at Fox Broadcasting, reflects how the company has refined its philosophy as it comes to grips with the reality of having created a network out of what formerly were independent stations. While Fox is seen on powerful VHF stations in the country’s major cities (such as KTTV Channel 11 in Los Angeles), the bulk of its 118-station U.S. lineup consists of weaker, less accessible UHF channels (numbers 14 and above).

“ ‘Family Man’ ended up being a very traditional family show,” Ancier explains. “That was fine; that was Earl’s particular vision. It was not a different enough vision, though, to make someone turn from Channel 2 to Channel 68.” “The Tracey Ullman Show,” on the other hand, is “unlike anything else on television,” he notes. “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” which Fox picked up from the Showtime cable, is a comedy whose star regularly stops the story to speak directly to the audience. “It’s much easier for us to succeed with a ‘Married . . . With Children’ than a ‘Family Man,’ even though they’re both about families,” Ancier sums up, referring to Fox’s acerbic sitcom about a bickering couple.

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Yet carrying out the programming strategy is “very difficult,” Diller observes, “because if you take any of these things too far, you’re in some obscure ‘narrowcasting’ land, and that would be as big a mistake as being the dull broad of ‘broadcasting.’ ”

Case in point: Fox’s disastrous Saturday night comedy schedule, which has been attracting a mere 2% of the audience, is being overhauled this month. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than being able to put a good comedy on the air,” Ancier says. “But the fact is, on Saturday night, NBC has the comedy franchise (with ‘The Facts of Life,’ ‘227,’ ‘The Golden Girls’ and ‘Amen’). And an alternative service like Fox Broadcasting is not going to be a clear alternative putting comedies against NBC’s.”

So out will go “Mr. President,” “Women in Prison” and “The New Adventures of Beans Baxter.” In will come “Family Doubledare,” a nighttime version of the popular children’s game show, and “Dirty Dozen,” an hourlong, male-oriented adaptation of the World War II shoot-'em-up film. Neither seems destined for immortality, but this is commercial television.

“Different doesn’t always mean putting on something that is going to win Emmy Awards,” Ancier says. “Different can be something that simply appeals to a limited audience that we can get and bring over to Channel 68.”

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Understanding the magnitude of Fox’s UHF handicap is crucial to evaluating Fox’s performance to date. “When a 40-year-old, primarily VHF network that covers 99% of the population gets a 5.1 rating and an 8 share at 8 o’clock on a Tuesday night for original programming, as CBS did recently for ‘Trial and Error,’ the first thing you have to say is that it’s a very competitive time in television,” Ancier says with dry understatement. “You can imagine why a 1-year-old alternative service on a lineup of 75% UHF stations that reaches 85% of the population has a hard time competing.” That’s why Fox executives are so pleased with their other night of programming, Sunday. The lineup of “21 Jump Street,” “Married . . . With Children,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” “Duet,” “The Tracey Ullman Show” and “Werewolf” (which went on hiatus last week, replaced by “America’s Most Wanted”) attracts about 7% of the audience and is growing. In major cities where Fox is on well-established VHF stations, some of the series regularly beat one of the network affiliates. Moreover, the Sunday schedule shows strong appeal to the young-adult viewers whom most advertisers want to reach.

Diller beams. “Not only do we have shows that we think are absolutely competitive, but, with one exception--I won’t tell you which, because everybody has their favorites--these are terrific shows,” he says of the Sunday lineup. “This is a great night of television, and we have been able to do that in a year! Let me tell you, from the time I was 23 years old until I was 32 years old, I lived at a network (ABC) that didn’t have one great night of television.”

“21 Jump Street,” however, is the only show that frequently has met or exceeded the 6 rating that Fox promised its advertisers, and that is roughly the network’s break-even point between expenses and ad revenue. The night as a whole is averaging a 4.3 rating for the season, Fox researchers say, though the average climbed to 4.9 for the six weeks between mid-February and the end of March.

Diller says that he is not concerned by the shortfall. “Not to be defensive about it, but very few people deliver what they guarantee advertisers; that’s the world of make-goods, and everybody deals in them,” he explains. “When NBC says they’re going to get an x rating and then delivers 10% or 20% less than that, it’s no big deal. But when we do it, therein lies the drama. We would like to do better. We think we will.”

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Fox executives said at the outset of their network venture that they expected to lose at least $50 million during the first year of operation, and some estimates put the figure at nearly $80 million. Diller declines to discuss specifics but views the subject calmly, seeing it as simply the initial investment that must be made to establish a new business. It may be three to five years before Fox Broadcasting turns a profit, he says.


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