[FoRK] Fwd: Review-a-Day: The Fourth Network: How Fox Broke the Rules and Reinvented Television

Joseph S. Barrera III joe at barrera.org
Thu Feb 3 15:00:49 PST 2005

Worth reading.
Who here has NOT been affected by Fox?
And... can I visit your desert island? For a while?

(I'll bring a coconut juicer...)

- Joe

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Review-a-Day: The Fourth Network: How Fox Broke the Rules and 
Reinvented Television
Date: Tue, 1 Feb 2005 03:00:02 -0800 (PST)
From: reviews at powells.com
Reply-To: reviews at powells.com
To: joe at barrera.org

Today's Review From
The Atlantic Monthly

The Fourth Network: How Fox Broke the Rules and Reinvented Television
by  Daniel M. Kimmel

Read today's review in HTML at:

The Murdoch Touch
	A review by Tom Carson

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, ...

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