The Murdoch Touch

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

It's a safe guess that Murdoch, Republican backer or no, wouldn't have cared if Bart had advocated assassinating Poppy, so long as it built the brand. Quality control was never part of any Fox executive's brief, and the network churned out more than its share of forgettable dreck. But memorable dreck and better—dreck that pegged a suddenly up-for-grabs zeitgeist by inventing new audiences—was Fox's real contribution, which was why its nineties roster of must-see TV surpassed not only NBC's but that of the Big Three put together: from Married … With Children and that delirious index of Clinton-era frolics Melrose Place to the ahead-of-John-Ashcroft's-time Alien Nation and The X-Files, progenitor of a whole fantasy-conspiracy genre that, post-9/11, carries on in ABC's Alias and Fox's own 24. Not to mention Ally McBeal, which I couldn't stand but which made the cover of Time for good reason, and the current The O.C., which I dote on; it's dreck so wittily attuned to contemporary mores that to label it dreck at all is simply to specify its genre, not to pass judgment.

In animation, where Fox ruled despite its competitors' attempts to play catch-up (who remembers ABC's Capitol Critters, produced by that barrel of laughs Steven Bochco?), the success of The Simpsons spawned not only Groening's charming Futurama but also Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge's King of the Hill, which was both celebrating and satirizing George W. Bush's America well before Dubya reached office. In the comedy realm, as the supposedly more mainstream networks grew increasingly dependent on high-end shows about bantering yuppie singles—the Big Three's version of boutique programming—Fox became, peculiarly enough, prime time's most reliable purveyor of homely, old-fashioned family sitcoms (That '70s Show, Malcolm in the Middle, Grounded for Life, and a personal favorite, Titus), whose new wrinkles made them funkier and more truthful about kids and parents than their antiseptic predecessors.

All in all, this is such an impressive list of lively, trend-setting, even radical programming—imagine the past fifteen years of prime time without it—that you may wonder how Fox has managed to preserve its air of disreputability. But not to worry: Murdoch is Murdoch, after all. Far more notoriously, but still building the brand, his network also pioneered tabloid TV with America's Most Wanted and Cops, not to mention such exercises in raw titillation as World's Scariest Police Chases and the legendary When Animals Attack—another alternative title for The Fourth Network that Kimmel missed out on. Although it was left to CBS, in yet another sign of changing times, to inaugurate the reality-TV vogue with Survivor, Fox quickly upped the ante, concocting stunt shows so garishly depraved that in hindsight the first of them, Temptation Island, now looks downright sedate.

Yet Fox is also responsible for at least two of the best reality shows. That's an oxymoron only if you don't grasp why reality TV became a phenomenon in the first place: it's expressive, which is what pop culture is supposed to be. Calling Fox's Joe Millionaire a hunk of ridiculous trash may be perfectly apt, but it's also unilluminating; Millionaire was ridiculous trash so eloquent about our attitudes toward sex, class, money, and fairy-tale romance that Edith Wharton would have been fascinated. There also isn't another series as revealing about the quiddities of race (and fame, and good old anti-intellectual American chauvinism—thanks for the target practice, Simon Cowell) as American Idol, whose participatory hook is at once cultural democracy writ large and a diverting parodic displacement of the electoral process whose literal version so many Americans are estranged from.

In fact, reality programming is the ultimate symbol of the democratization—the cultural deregulation, if you like—of TV, substituting a carnival of pluribus for traditional broadcasting's premium on unum. Call it pandering and you won't be wrong, but to the formerly marginalized audiences in question, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy addicts no less than fans of Jeff Foxworthy's (great name) Blue Collar TV, pandering feels like enfranchisement. To suppose that this is somehow more objectionable than Seinfeld's catering to yuppie narcissism is simply to assert your belief that biscotti and mime beat bread and circuses—that is, that some coteries should be more equal than others. (Distaste on aesthetic grounds is, of course, another story—but because pop culture is about audiences as much as artifacts, it's never the whole story.) Gentility as a mode will never lack devotees; just ask Merchant and Ivory. But gentility as an imposed ideal has been the bane of democratic culture's vitality ever since mass communications were invented.

The paradox—or is it one, sublimation spotters?—is that TV's content is becoming more democratic just as our economic and political institutions are growing less so. Murdoch's empire exemplifies the perniciousness of unfettered media consolidation every bit as much as Fox's programming does the pleasures of cultural deregulation—a conundrum that Kimmel doesn't have the analytical chops to explore. Yet the reason pop culture has always been the joker in capitalism's deck is that its manufacturers have never been able to control what audiences make of the product. That's why it was an overlooked TV milestone when Married … With Children's sorry Al Bundy, intended as a grotesque figure of fun, became a beloved folk hero instead—grotty suburbia's answer to the good soldier Schweik.

His current epigone, of course, is Bill O'Reilly, who's baleful rather than abject—and whose surly vox-pop shtick is as much a performance as actor Ed O'Neill's was. But I didn't believe that Bart Simpson represented civilization's downfall, and I don't think Fox News does either, in spite of loathing both its politics and its mountebank methodology. For one thing, in a splendid illustration of the rule of unintended consequences, the channel's propagandistic overreaching turned out to be a wake-up call for its ideological opponents. For another, no matter how much they enjoy getting their world views buttressed right up to the fundament, Fox News viewers don't have bad taste in show biz. Especially when O'Reilly is on, they're responding to brilliant TV, and if you ever rolled your eyes at Walter Cronkite's plummy version of papal infallibility, you can appreciate why O'Reilly's barroom contempt for traditional newscasts' smugness has its appeal, even if you know his pretense that their bias is flamingly liberal, rather than blandly institutional, is a crock. O'Reilly's double game is that he's an iconoclast who sucks up to power, which is also true of Fox News in general. But that's offset by the fact that a contentious network can't, by definition, be an authoritative one—not least because, as we've seen, it instantly spawns hecklers of its own. In some ways the ultimate question posed by Fox News, Murdoch's career, and television's current fertile disarray is whether charlatanry is an improvement on humbug.

Tom Carson is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of Gilligan's Wake (2003), a novel.
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