25th Anniversary of Fox TV Network Leads to Prime Time Special, Reflection, List-Making

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As announced a couple weeks ago Fox is celebrating the 25th Anniversary of its 1987 debut with a prime time special set to air this coming Sunday, April 22nd, from 8-10 pm Eastern Standard Time.

That the debut of a fourth television network was cause for tremendous excitement is probably incomprehensible to someone raised in today’s media environment, where a new obscure cable channel is launched pretty much every day and the distinction between “cable” and “broadcast” is increasingly meaningless. But for many of us of a certain age, television up until that point had meant nothing but the “Big Three” broadcast networks and at best maybe a local PBS affiliate and/or some weird local independent station that showed nothing but reruns and had a weak signal.

Yes, cable TV did already exist, but in 1987 it was still considered mostly a novelty/luxury. It was still often called “pay cable” or “pay TV,” reflecting the belief that the normative TV business model should be to give the programming away for free and support it through ad sales, as opposed to a subscription model. (This I believe is what’s meant by the phrase “the good old days.”) And at that time most cable TV concerned itself with the still novel concept of showing people theatrically released movies in their home (like some sort of “home box office” if you will) and not with producing original content.

So, the prospect of a fourth broadcast network, devoting itself to original programming, was cause for great excitement among adolescent TV nerds in my age cohort. And, what’s more, Fox shows for the most part were more daring, more original, more youth-oriented (and more vulgar) than typical “Big Three” fare. The brilliant TV critic Alan Sepinwall has an excellent piece placing the launch of Fox in this historical context and appreciating its better shows over the years:

After a while, some trends became clear, and the biggest one was that the most successful FOX shows — and usually, but not always, the best ones — tended to be ones that broke the mold, and that the more traditional ABC, CBS and NBC wouldn’t have dared try.
At the start, there was “Married… with Children” being cited as evidence of the decline and fall of Western civilization: a family sitcom that didn’t believe in hugs and tear-jerking and the rest of the false sentiment designed to make you forgive all the insults leading up to the “awww.” Then there was “The Simpsons,” which also started as an abomination — President Bush the first and his wife both condemned it in the early days — and is now an institution. There was “In Living Color,” which showed that both “Saturday Night Live” and white actors shouldn’t have a monopoly on sketch comedy.(**) “The X-Files” proved it was possible to have a commercially successful sci-fi show.
Over the ensuing 25 years Fox of course became part of the mainstream, getting the rights to NFL games and even a few Super Bowls while also launching American Idol, for better worse the last truly broadly popular, mass cultural event television show there is.
But the tradition of more daring programming has lived on to some extent at Fox. Joss Whedon fans bemoan the network’s treatment of his show Firefly, and to a lesser extent of Dollhouse, but it’s to Fox’s credit that they were the network to air these shows to begin with. The same goes for Arrested Development. And even some of Fox’s biggest hits over the last decade weren’t exactly sure bets. 24 was daring in its real-time, one season/one day structure. Glee was greenlit in the face of a terrible track record for musical series on TV. House was a big departure from the typical hospital/doctor show etc.
Sepinwall has also done an in my opinion pretty accurate list of the 10 best shows in Fox network history.  Further details on plans for the 25th Anniversary special, who’s involved, what shows will be discussed etc. can be found in this AV Club newswire post. 
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