“Oh, the network slogan is true, ‘Watch FOX and be damned for all eternity’.” – Ned Flanders
The Simpsons openly rebelled against the staid world of television and remorselessly mocked American society. Even in the 1980s, neither of those were novel concepts. But unlike counter-culture publications,9 risque niche programming, and art house movies that trafficked in the same sentiment, The Simpsons was beamed directly into the vast majority of American homes. Marge and Homer were just as available in Kansas as they were in New York.
That is a distinction that has become less important in the days of satellite television, DVDs, broadband internet, and smart phones, but it was vital at the time. The influence the three television networks exerted over American culture is hard to comprehend today. Americans see only a handful of movies per year and read even fewer books. But that same mythically average American watches hours of television every day. For the overwhelming majority of people, the chattering cyclops was their cultural keystone, and it was dominated by just three organizations.
By the 1980s, ABC, CBS, and NBC had been synonymous with television for so long that they seemed like something out of the Old Testament.10 In 1986, FOX conducted research to determine what kind of programming people would want from a hypothetical fourth network. They unearthed an enormous amount of frustration:xiii
“What we found was a tremendous vacuum essentially – every viewer had a problem with every network. They would say things like, ‘They canceled my favorite show,’ or ‘Their shows are all the same,’ or ‘They only do one show that’s a hit and then everybody copies that.’ There was a very strong theme of very repetitive complaints about the three networks”
FOX aimed to fill that vacuum, and by the time The Simpsons premiered in 1989 it had achieved modest success with shows like 21 Jump Street and Married . . . with Children, programs that had no counterparts on the established networks. But it was still just a proto-network, a few errant stations, some UHF affiliates, and the long shattered remains of the DuMont Television Network, which had gone dark in 1956. It only programmed a couple of hours per night, had no news division, and wasn’t even on seven days a week until 1993.
Whatever FOX lacked in respect and prestige, however, it made up for in sheer reach. Starting in 1987, a decade before small dish satellite services went mainstream and two decades before home video streaming became practical, FOX was the only thing that could be seen by even a significant fraction of the audience for ABC, CBS and NBC. It didn’t have the total coast-to-coast coverage they did, but it was head and shoulders above everything else.
Nor did FOX lack for marketing panache. Like most News Corp subsidiaries before and since, the network was a tireless self promoter, and to solidify its outsider cool, FOX more or less openly flew the Jolly Roger in its early years.11 It billed itself as the new kid, edgy, unrepentant, and modern. It featured a lot of minority programming, was looser with lower key swear words, and had a more casual attitude towards attractive people in skimpy clothing. FOX may have been owned by a billionaire plutocrat and run by a bunch of multi-millionaire television veterans, but compared to the ancient power of the established networks, it could credibly present itself as anti-establishment.
FOX has since become synonymous with the American right thanks to FOX News and 24, but in the late 1980s it looked like a lefty plot to a lot of people. A year into its run, Married . . . with Children had been the subject of a public boycott when a Michigan woman took offense to an episode. (Which was the basis for the previously discussed Season 2 episode, “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”.) Arsenio Hall got his start on FOX, which didn’t help the network’s reputation among the doyennes of television when he began threatening Johnny Carson’s longstanding and universally lauded run of late night dominance. Thanks to those kinds of disruptions, and the fact that it relentlessly described itself as such, FOX was cool, controversial and growing.
The Simpsons and FOX both launched at the perfect moment. Network television’s power as a cultural arbiter was at its peak, technology hadn’t yet begun diluting its audience with competitors, and the existing players were all stodgy and old fashioned. A few years earlier and FOX might not have been big enough to make the show truly catch, a few years later and Springfield might have been just another part of the fourth network. But on FOX in the 1989-90 season, The Simpsons was in a unique position in terms of availability, cultural cache, and controversy. It wasn’t for nothing that FOX advertised the premier by saying, “They’re coming to save the 90s!”.xiv
It was the right show, on the right network, at the right time. With hundreds of channels, instant video, and the ever expanding internet, there will likely never be another confluence like that.
Continue to Chapter 5: The Retirements.
Notes and Sources
11. In the United Kingdom, the Sky One channel was getting started at the same time. Like FOX, Sky One was a News Corporation property and it used The Simpsons to establish itself as a major part of the media landscape. For details, see: http://deadhomersociety.com/2012/06/13/english-who-needs-that-the-simpsons-in-the-united-kingdom/.