30th Anniversary of FOX in Prime Time

Technically, it’s not the 30th anniversary of FOX but the FOX Broadcasting Company did launch in prime time 30 years ago today. The network officially debuted on Thursday, October 9th, 1986 with its late-night talk show The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. Its entry into prime time had to wait until Sunday, April 5th, 1987. The lineup that night consisted of two sitcom premieres, each aired three times.

In a box somewhere, I have TV Guide with a special insert for FOX’s prime time launch. Thanks to YouTube, enjoy the following 30-year-old FOX promotional spots as well as some commercials:

Here’s the schedule for that historic night when an upstart fourth network dared challenge the Big Three:

FOX in Prime Time – Sunday, April 5th, 1987 (Eastern/Pacific)

7:00PM Married… with Children [series premiere]
7:30PM The Tracey Ullman Show [series premiere]
8:00PM Married… with Children [repeat]
8:30PM The Tracey Ullman Show [repeat]
9:00PM Married… with Children [repeat]
9:30PM The Tracey Ullman Show [repeat]

Did the premiere-repeat-repeat strategy work? Preliminary ratings for 13 markets weren’t stellar. FOX focused on the cumulative ratings for its two sitcoms, insisting viewers weren’t going to watch the same episode three times. Nationally, Married… with Children earned a cumulative 10.7 rating, The Tracey Ullman Show a 9.4 rating. Here’s a breakdown by half-hour:

FOX Prime Time Ratings – Sunday, April 5th, 1987 (Eastern/Pacific)

7:00PM Married… with Children [series premiere] – 3.9 rating (106 stations)
7:30PM The Tracey Ullman Show [series premiere] – 3.5 rating (106 stations)
8:00PM Married… with Children [repeat] – 3.6 rating (105 stations)
8:30PM The Tracey Ullman Show [repeat] – 3.1 rating (105 stations)
9:00PM Married… with Children [repeat] – 3.2 rating (105 stations)
9:30PM The Tracey Ullman Show [repeat] – 2.8 rating (104 stations)

Over the next month, FOX rolled out a number of other shows: 21 Jump Street, Duet, and Mr. President. It wasn’t until May 10th that the network had a stable Sunday lineup. A second night of programming (Saturday) debuted on July 11th.

FOX did not consider itself a traditional television network in 1987. “We call ourselves a ‘satellite-delivered national program service,'” programming chief Garth Ancier told The Los Angeles Times prior to FOX’s prime time debut. “There are tremendous uphill battles” to becoming a fourth network, Ancier explained. “There are technical and built-in audience obstacles. This hasn’t been done since before I was born, with the old DuMont Network.”

Somehow, FOX pulled it off and here we are three decades later.

Were you watching FOX make its prime time debut 30 years ago? If so, do you remember whether you preferred Married… with Children or The Tracey Ullman Show? Did you expect FOX to survive?

Belkin, Lisa. “First Ratings for Two New Fox Shows.” New York Times. 7 Apr. 1987: C18.
Crook, David. “Fox Makes Its Sly, Crafty Debut.” Los Angeles Times. 5 Apr. 1987: 6.
“In Brief.” Broadcasting. 13 Apr. 1987: 112.

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9 Replies to “30th Anniversary of FOX in Prime Time”

  1. I watched both “MARRIED” & “ULLMAN” at 7pm on that first night and continued to watch MWC until it’s last episode 12 years later.

    1. I saw those shows and I used to have a copy of the TV Guide insert. It’s interesting to note that Fox had only 106 affiliates at their inception. Nobody took them seriously, I remember a post of the bottom ratings in 1987 and it didn’t include Fox because Nielsen didn’t consider them a “network”. Fox had to pay big bucks just to get overnights from the top 20 markets. If you still have the insert, feel free to post it.

  2. I watched them that night, and enjoyed both shows. I think I liked Tracey’s a bit better, but I watched them both for a long time after that.

  3. There is a connection between Fox and the long-defunct DuMont network!

    After DuMont folded, two of it’s owned television stations, WABD New York and WTTG Washington, wound up with Metropolitan Broadcasting (later Metromedia), which promptly changed WABD’s call letters to WNEW. WTTG today still has those call letters.

    The core of the Fox-owned stations group happens to be several stations Fox bought from Metromedia in 1986, which besides WNYW (formerly WNEW) and WTTG, also includes KTTV Los Angeles and WFLD Chicago.

    1. You’re right about that fact. Interesting trivia: when Fox hosted its first Emmy broadcast later that year, Jay Leno joked. “Next year, we’re going to be on the DuMont network”. Wonder if his writers knew about the Dumont/Metromedia/Fox relationship.

  4. I remember watching the Fox prime time debut in 1987. In Las Vegas, the Fox affiliate was and remains a VHF station in the suburb of Henderson (where I call home). KVVU-TV (Channel 5) was once owned by the late, great Johnny Carson (it went on the air in 1968). When Fox was launched, it deliberately limited the hours it broadcast to avoid being considered a “network” under FCC rules. That meant Fox didn’t have to play by many of the same rules as ABC, CBS and NBC were required to. By the way, Rupert Murdoch had to become an American citizen because the FCC would not allow television stations to be owned by citizens from other countries. I don’t know if that rule is still in place today, however. As Rupert discovered to his surprise, owning broadcast and cable outlets was more influential than newspaper ownership. Certainly that applies to Fox News Channel–but that’s another topic for another day.

    1. The major rule that Murdoch wanted to get around was the Fin-Syn rule, established in 1970 to break up the networks’ monopoly on production. Basically, it said that networks could not syndicate shows produced by them. In fact, Viacom was established solely to distribute CBS shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and “I Love Lucy”, Murdoch got around it by getting the FCC to say that any programing service with less than 15 hours in prime time was not a network, This is why Fox signs off at 10 instead of 11. In 1995, Fin-Syn was abolished, opening the doors for Disney to buy ABC and Universal to merge with NBC. Ironically, Viacom was so profitable it could buy out both CBS and Paramount Studios.

  5. There was no Fox affiliate in my part of the country in 1987. The first Fox affiliate in Nebraska was Omaha’s KPTM, which went on the air in 1988. In Central Nebraska I couldn’t get Fox until the Fox Net cable network went on cable systems on June 1, 1991. The first show that aired on that network was The Simpsons episode, “Simpson & Delilah”. There was no over-the-air affiliate until 1994, when a one-year-old independent station (KTVG in Grand Island) became the affiliate That station was shuttered by the ownership a few years ago in favor of a former CW affiliate in Lincoln that now serves as the Fox affiliate in the market (Two ABC stations with the same ownership have Fox as a subchannel).

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