Much like my previous piece, 'They Shoot Simpsons, Don't They?', I must also preface this manifesto by admitting that throughout my life I have spent countless hours watching Fox TV and have genuinely enjoyed some of their fine programming. God forbid I come across like a 'hater'. As they have dominated the Nielson ratings for more than six years, now seems like a good time to look back on just how exactly Fox TV made it to the top.
"Oh, Fox TV... Has it really been 25 years?"
A little network that began with humble beginnings a quarter century ago has blossomed into some kind of Accidental Prom Queen. (Go with me on this.) She never thought she would become this popular and as a result, will stop at nothing to keep it this way.
I'm sorry to say it but, it's true: This was the first network to have Homer Simpson (or the guy from American Dad or whomever) obnoxiously dance across the bottom of your screen, advertising a different network show. (Now all networks do it.) There is a feeling of shamelessness to the mere concept of advertising another program right in the middle of the show you are currently freakin' watching. You already won! I'm literally watching your network right now!
Okay, calm down, Chief. Stay on point.
Alright, I'm calm.
After it launched in 1985, Fox took its time filling its schedule. It was suddenly the little fish in the big pond, so they paced themselves. They couldn't yet compete with the other networks, so they just tried to be unique. Early favorites included Married with Children, 21 Jump Street, In Living Color and The Tracey Ullman Show. I'm sure I don't have to point out that Ullman's sketch/ variety show featured a cartoon segment about the life of an American family. The Simpsons was initially a midseason replacement and became the networks first taste of Top 30's ratings. And that taste was so sweet that Fox decided to chase that dragon like a junkie, desperate for its next fix.
Twenty years later, Fox's current smash hit American Idol reigns as the highest rated show on television. In between the highs and the lows, their many attempts to archive #1 status with original scripted content unfortunately failed, leaving network heads in a quandary. Should they continue betting on cult favorites like The X-Files, Malcolm in the Middle or Arrested Development ("Look at banner, Michael!")? Or perhaps try another pop-drama along the lines of Melrose Place, 24 or House? Uniqueness be damned, they wanted ratings.
In an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it mindset, Fox decided to fall back on an old TV trope. Why not remake an already successful British show? Change Pop Idol to American Idol, and you're gold.
And they're still gold. Well, sort of. American Idol ratings have actually never been lower but yet, they're still higher than whoever is in 2nd place. Lemme check, who is in 2nd place, by the way...? Oh yeah, I remember now: AMERICAN IDOL, that's who! They actually claim the top 2 slots. (Source: Nielsen.com) And still, their ratings have never been lower. Third place is dominated by NBC's The Voice. Starting to see a trend here?
I'm not saying that Fox has sold its soul or anything like that. The awful truth about most television is that the content really doesn't matter to the networks. TV is merely an excuse to show people commercials. Television is a big roundabout excuse to sell toilet paper and pick-up trucks. That is how it began and how it remains. Obviously, network heads would be happier if their programs were both popular and adored by critics but usually, they favor the former. It costs an ungodly amount of money to advertise on television and if nobody is watching the show, the sponsors will pull the ads. If enough ads get pulled, the show gets cancelled. It's that simple. No one cares less about art than the head of marketing at Viagra.
But who am I to judge? Fox is at the top of the heap. They gotta be doin' something right. Their current line-up includes recent winners like Glee, Bob's Burgers and New Girl, all of which rate far lower than Idol. The big question: What will happen when American Idol ends?
Or...Will it ever end?
In 1989, Fox unleashed a show called Cops. You know the one. Despite its lack of mainstream, tweet-able popularity, it is still in production today. The Simpsons: Still in production today. Fox has no problem flogging a dead horse, particularly if that horse is either very inexpensive to produce (Cops) or if that horse sells a lot of merchandise and DVDs (The Simpsons). Idol is a show of similar ilk. All three formats could conceivably go on forever.
Twenty five years and now what? Fox has proven once and for all that they can compete with the big networks, to a point of utter domination. But if high TV ratings equated to high quality programming, then the Super Bowl Half Time show would be one of the greatest pieces of art ever created.
And it isn't.
Tony is on Twitter.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.