The Murdoch Touch

If Rupert's so bad, why is Fox so good?

When people today bemoan the rise of Fox, they mean cable's Fox News Channel—home of Sean Hannity's red-white-and-Colgate smirk, Bill O'Reilly strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, and God's favorite banana Republican, Oliver North. That's why The Fourth Network, Daniel M. Kimmel's account of the original Fox's arrival in broadcast television's hen house, has its quaint side; given what followed, the book might as well be called The First Tentacle. It's almost touching to remember the simpler time when Rupert Murdoch was out to diddle only our tastes, not our political values.

He succeeded, too, and while one doesn't quite want to say "More power to him," the truth is that TV is the better for it. Television was puerile long before today's raft of uncommon lowest denominators, which so horrify our holdout nests of gentlefolk. The difference is that it used to be unctuously puerile, obstinately conceiving the mass audience as the monolith that the rest of pop culture kept proving it wasn't and promoting a middle-class consensus—innocuous, self-satisfied, and dull—that was an artifice long before it stopped being tenable. A crass alternative to the quasi-official triumvirate of CBS, NBC, and ABC (broadcasting's Big Three ever since the demise of the old Dumont network, way back in Eisenhower's first term), Fox, which was launched in 1986, augured the 500-channel surfeit of high-low antipodes and niche programming for multimillion-member coteries we cheerily surf through now.

Something like this would undoubtedly have happened even if the ship carrying Rupe's convict ancestors to Australia had foundered with all hands, a scenario let's try not to get too wistful about. But Fox, like no other network, defined TV's transformation in the nineties, not only by rejecting any pretense of civic-mindedness—always the Big Three's pious compensation for their medium's presumed vulgarity—but by braying that Fox programming wasn't for everybody. Pursuing traditional broadcasting's chimera of one-size-fits-all appeal wasn't something the fledgling network had the resources to do in any case. Instead Fox targeted the youth demographics that advertisers prized, all but inventing teen soaps with Beverly Hills, 90210 and corralling a rare integrated audience of black and white hipsters with Keenen Ivory Wayans's sketch show, In Living Color, whose subcultural savvy made Saturday Night Live look like Hee Haw. It's because of Fox's redivision of the ratings pie that a later series like the WB's (and then UPN's) Buffy the Vampire Slayer could qualify as buzzworthy despite never coming close to cracking the Top Twenty in the Nielsen ratings. For that matter, without Fox's brash example, the WB and UPN might not exist—certainly not in the form they do: as also-rans that are nonetheless success stories.

As a straightforward recap of how Murdoch did it—from buying Metromedia and assembling a ragtag group of indie affiliates to dickering with Congress and an FCC so happy to lean backward for him that it was nicknamed the Fox Communications Commission—The Fourth Network is an informative read. Its limitation is that despite his sweeping subtitle, Kimmel is really interested only in the business side of the story, and in a fairly pedestrian way. Though he gingerly notes some of Murdoch's more unsavory practices, his tacit premise is boosterish—Fox as the Seabiscuit of media hydras—and critical analysis of the issues raised isn't his strong suit. Typically, when he describes the 1994 flap over then incoming Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's receiving a $4.5 million book advance from HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp., while legislation of interest to Murdoch was pending (Gingrich passed up the payday once the clamor kicked in), he's ingenuous—or craven—enough to assume that simply because no quid pro quo was actually discussed when the two men met, none was implicit.

Because Kimmel isn't overly curious about the creative end—the book is all boardrooms and no sound stages—his year-by-year summary of Fox's track record has a cast of suits; and since for the most part they aren't characterized, nor the consequences of their decisions made to seem especially significant, their ups and downs stay uninvolving.The book's major frustration, though, is that the man who ought to be its central figure is so blandly interpreted—that is, not at all. Granted, Kimmel didn't have any access to Murdoch, but the Munchkins knew the Wicked Witch mostly by report, and that didn't stop them from gibbering.

It's not that I need The Fourth Network to confirm my belief—not exactly an uncommon one—that Murdoch is a creep. But its author might at least have been intrigued by the fact that—unlike, say, Donald Trump, whose motives are always as legible as Anna Nicole Smith's—Murdoch is a baffling creep: "the poster boy of the cultural contradictions of capitalism," as John Powers calls him in Sore Winners, "whose enterprises subvert the very institutions and values he claims to be conserving." Half the ideologue as cynic and half the cynic as ideologue, and alarming either way, Murdoch serenely backed not only The Simpsons, whose seditious streak has softened but not vanished with age, but also Profit and Skin, two regrettably short-lived shows that treated capitalism as a disease—one by assuming that the ideal tycoon was a psychopath, and the other by sardonically equating big business with the porn industry. Ted Turner, on the other hand, was so straightforward a liberal that he even married Jane Fonda, and the nightmarish thing is that it was probably for the conversation.

What's unnerving is that Murdoch may be right to suspect, as he undoubtedly does, that these contradictions don't matter. From the start Fox's reputation—one the network, fearful of prestige, embraces to this day—wasn't for agitprop but for appalling low-mindedness, certified by its debut sitcom, the brilliantly foul Married … With Children. Kimmel tells us that the working title for this no-holds-barred burlesque of Middle American squalor was Not the Cosbys, which certainly takes you back to what eighties TV was like before Fox's advent. The Cosby Show was the last of consensus-style TV's great hits; its expert craft, unimpeachable virtue, and literal paternalism were the sitcom equivalent of Walter Cronkite's trustworthiness or Johnny Carson's barometric genius. (That Cronkite has no heir is one proof that consensus TV is as dead as the dodo; that David Letterman and Jay Leno now split the legacy of sardonic Johnny and gee-whiz Johnny between them is another.) However, the real anti-Cosby turned out to be a bizarre-looking cartoon spun off from an animated segment on Fox's The Tracey Ullman Show. It was soon going head-to-head with the Cos on Thursday nights, an act of chutzpah so widely viewed as foolhardy that Goliath himself—through a spokesman, natch—professed amazement.

By now The Simpsons towers over Cosby as a cultural landmark; how many viewers are even aware that Springfield's chuckling, callous resident physician started out as a pointed Cliff Huxtable send-up? But it may indicate just how fed up we TV-land heretics had gotten with Cosby's heartily authoritarian bromides that when Matt Groening's motley two-dimensional crew finally edged out Bill's nonmusical Von Trapp family in the ratings, I compared the event in print to the world's turning upside down at Yorktown. Nothing measures how profoundly things have changed like the fact that The Simpsons—now generally, and rightly, acclaimed by critics as one of television's most humane treasures—was greeted half a generation ago as proof that TV had rolled into the gutter for good. When George H.W. Bush joined the fray ("We need a nation closer to The Waltons than The Simpsons," he said, probably without ever having watched either), he set up one of the great moments in TV history: Bart Simpson sassing the president of the United States right back.

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