FOX launched 30 years ago: A look at the start of the Fourth Network’s journey, from Joan Rivers to ‘The Simpsons’ to ‘Empire’

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“In the next weeks, every critic in America will be taking a shot at me and/or our show… Just ignore all this nonsense and please, please, please do not bring any of it into the office. Everyone can go to hell except us! We shall triumph!!” – Memo from Joan Rivers to her staff on the day of the first FOX broadcast

She sat in her dressing room, breathing through the nerves, wearing a stolen NBC robe. FOX Broadcasting Company (FBC) debuted on Oct. 9, 1986, with “The Late Show with Joan Rivers” – a queen of comedy deployed to take on NBC’s king of late night, Johnny Carson. Rivers’ inaugural quartet of iconoclast guests included Cher, David Lee Roth, Elton John and Pee-Wee Herman, and the show was gangbusters. But in making it to air, the fledgling FBC had simply qualified to contend with the Big Three. Now the real competition ramped up: producing a full week’s worth of compelling content, gaining viewers, expanding its network of affiliates – becoming FOX.

Under first network and film studio chief Barry Diller, the early years of FBC’s weekend prime-time lineup relied on the bawdy writing and dynamic casts of “21 Jump Street,” “Married…With Children” and the network’s first Emmy winner, “The Tracey Ullman Show.” Edgy proto-reality TV shows like “America’s Most Wanted” and “COPS” boosted viewership, albeit by stoking suburban fears with tabloid voyeurism.

 “In Living Color,” starring (top row L-R) T’Keyah Crystal Keymah, Kelly Coffield Park, Kim Wayans, Damon Wayans, Keenen Ivory Wayans, (bottom row L-R) Jim Carrey, David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson, Kim Coles and Shawn Wayans, was an iconic FOX series that aired from 1990-1994.

Photo credit: Timothy White/FOX

Bridging racial divides, “In Living Color” was a rambunctious alternative to NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” and the first in a string of FOX comedies appealing to the African American viewers largely ignored by ABC, NBC and CBS. The big move, however, was Sunday night’s introduction of prime-time animation; “The Simpsons launched in December 1989. It was such a hit that in the fall 1990 season, Barry and Rupert Murdoch decided to shift it from Sunday to go head-to-head with “The Cosby Show” on Thursday nights. “The Simpsons” caught on in the new time slot, and Cosby wrapped his sitcom soon after. People dug FOX.

Not everyone, maybe. At the annual Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon in 1990, an industry executive called “Married…with Children” “vulgar” and said “The Simpsons” had “lowered the civility level of young boys all over America.” Don’t have a cow, man. But the Fourth Network also launched fan faves and critically acclaimed dramatic fare like “Martin”; “Beverly Hills, 90210”; “Melrose Place”; “Roc”; “Herman’s Head”; and “Party of Five.” It also stretched outside prime time with the FOX Kids Network’s 1990 launch and successful shows like “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”; “Batman: The Animated Series”; and “Bobby’s World.” And, of course, there was “The X-Files.”

“’The X-Files’ took the network from being the place with brash, outrageous comedies and some good dramas, to a destination for quality, dramatic storytelling,” said Fox Television Group Chairman and CEO Dana Walden.

FOX’s incredible strength with the coveted 18-49 demographic – especially 20-somethings who were flocking to 90210 and Melrose – gave the network necessary clout to lure the NFL rights away from CBS, and Rupert’s characteristic overpayment ($1.6 billion) sealed the deal. As FOX coverage of the NFL kicked off and was joined by the NHL in 1994, MLB followed in 1996. Affiliates started flipping from the Big Three to FOX. The Fourth Network was now truly a force of nature.

Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, prime-time animation continued to evolve with hits such as “King of the Hill,” “Futurama” and “Family Guy.” Shows like “Mad TV,” “Ally McBeal,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “That 70s Show” and “Malcolm in the Middle” proved FOX could do comedy in many forms. And “24,” “Boston Public,” “House,” and “The O.C.” established FOX as a network comfortable with innovative, dramatic fare. The youth market remained a core.

Despite these successes, the turn of the millennium saw a number of forgettable flops greenlit and canceled – many of them spin-offs or copycats, like “Ally,” “The Lone Gunmen,” or “Time of Your Life.” It was time to get back to original, groundbreaking work.

Left to right: Co-host, Ryan Seacrest, Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson, Season 1 runner-up Justin Guarini and co-host Brian Dunkleman.

Photo credit: FOX Broadcasting Company

New president of entertainment Gail Berman came to FOX in 2000. “The goal was not to abandon our audience,” she said, “but to broaden our audience and not lose the young part of it wherever we expanded.” This expansion was largely spurred by reality shows like “Joe Millionaire” (the gimmick proved successful once and hard to replicate in future years) and especially “American Idol” (which, by contrast, led the 18-49 demographic for seven consecutive seasons).

“People referred to [American Idol] as the Death Star because the network would use it and move it on different nights to kill other people’s shows,” said Fox Television Group Chairman and CEO Gary Newman.

While shows like “Glee” and “Bob’s Burgers” taught new tricks to some old genres (musicals, animation), with these and other recent programming FOX has evolved beyond novelties and gimmicks. Shows like “Fringe,” “New Girl,” “The Last Man on Earth,” “Lucifer,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Gotham,” “Empire” and the live musical event “Grease: Live” are the present and future of FOX.

The impossible upstart is now a leader. The secret? Focus on the heart of compelling content: great storytelling.