The broadcasting company, not the character from X-files who was created by the broadcasting company. By Alexander B. Huls, Mondo Magazine
You’ve all been there, most of you more than once. You know what I’m talking about. The love that you cherished, that you connected with the moment you met. The love to which you were so attached — and looked forward to seeing every week. Things seemed good, and then before you knew what happened, somebody came and took your love away from you. Never to be seen again.
If you were ever a devoted watcher of one of the many cancelled Fox shows, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Amongst TV-lovers, Fox has developed a notorious reputation for being a network that often screws over some of its best shows. Their methods include insufficient promotion, changing a show’s time slot so often that nobody knows when it’s on, and a general impatience to let a show find its groove and/or audience. The end result? Fox either kills its children slowly and painfully (Arrested Development) or quickly and immediately (Wonderfalls). Want an idea of how bad Fox is? Allow Seth McFarlane — whose Family Guy was also once cancelled — to enlighten you.
With the recent news that Fox has yet again effectively killed another show before it even really got started (their most recent victim being Drive), I found myself wondering: what the heck is wrong with Fox?
Now, before I go further, I do think that credit should be given where it’s due. Whenever TV-aficionados discuss Fox, it’s usually through gritted teeth, holding back feelings of betrayal, disappointment, and melancholy, so objectivity is sometimes misplaced. As a result, I think something gets overlooked. Let’s be honest here, these shows would probably never have even made it on the air if it weren’t for Fox. Fox is one of the few networks outside of HBO and Showtime that actually takes creative chances and approves shows that aren’t just medical dramas or crime procedurals (though, of course, it has those too). Could you really see any other network approving a show about the daughter of Satan, about a living rabbit puppet, about a man dressed as a gigantic blue tick, about a young girl to whom novelty items speak to, or a space western? Even 24 before it hit the air was an unconventional risk with its real-time, split-screen gimmick. If for nothing else, we should at least acknowledge and be grateful that Fox even let these shows leave their creators’ brains or script pages.
That being said, this is precisely what is so damn frustrating about Fox. They differentiate themselves from other networks by giving quirky, fresh, and solid shows a chance, only to smother their new babies when they feel that they aren’t walking soon enough. What’s the point of believing in a show enough to make it, only to lose faith as soon as it hits the air? Frankly, this also doesn’t make sense financially. Why bother spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on a show that you’ll end up pulling your support for by either marketing it improperly or not picking a good or consistent time slot? Obviously, the network likes these shows on some level, otherwise they wouldn’t approve them for production — yet why is Fox so willing to throw the towel in as soon as it appears that these shows aren’t out-of-the-gate hits?
Part of it might be the state of the industry. While Fox is the worst example of this, there seems to be a general hesitance to let a new show find its sea-legs. Everyone wants a hit right out of the flood gates, a la Lost, Heroes, Ugly Betty, and Desperate Housewives. With specialty cable networks leading to increasingly compartmentalized audiences, networks want the big hits more than the small ones. Having a show in the Top 20 is where the real advertising money can be found. Not in the bottom 20. TV is, ultimately, a business, and as much as a show may be great, if it isn’t making money, then it just doesn’t make financial sense. Sucks for us though.
There are, however, multiple exceptions, and the above statement is by no means meant to be taken as a generalization. Criminal Minds and even the original CSI took some time to develop the audiences they hold now. Grey’s Anatomy didn’t start out as the ratings juggernaut it is now. ABC has recently announced that they are renewing critical darling Friday Night Lights, despite its poor ratings, so there is hope out there. Hell, as much as we all adored Arrested Development, if it came down to ratings, it should have been cancelled long before it did. Fox thankfully valued the critical love for the show and kept it going.
Arrested Development, however, is a perfect example of exactly what is wrong with Fox. In the end, I can’t fully fault a business enterprise for making the decision to axe a show that is losing money. My problem with Fox is how they go about doing it. In the last season of Arrested Development, Fox not only mid-season announced that the show wouldn’t get a full 22 episodes, but failed to promote the show properly, as well as failed to give the episodes consistent airing dates. The worst part of it was that the final four episodes were not only aired all together, but were put up against the opening of the Olympic Games that summer (which is pretty much the kiss of death for any show). Wonderfalls got a similarly bad hand. When the show wasn’t working on Friday, when did they move it to for a “better” chance? Thursdays: the most competitive night of the week. To make matters worse, they aired the final episodes of out of sequence. Now it’s rumored that Drive will be getting the same treatment, as apparently Fox is planning to air the final episodes on July 4th, the least-watched TV day in North America.
So what is wrong with Fox? Is there some sort of psychological explanation for their behavior? It’s hard to say, especially given that when a show gets cancelled nobody from the network is very forthcoming about why, or if they are, it’s doubtful they are being fully honest. Fox is, after all, old hat at this. While all networks cancel shows, it seems Fox is the only one who does so in this unfathomable way. If I had to postulate a theory, I might argue it has to do with Fox’s age. After all, compared to the big three (CBS, ABC, NBC), Fox is relatively young and in accordance to that has often been considered the “hip” alternative to the other three networks. Early hits like The Simpsons, 90210, and Melrose Place cemented that image. However, while that “hip” factor is still noticeable in the types of shows that Fox initially approves for production, it is almost as if the network is an adolescent being forced to grow up, but desperately clinging on to its youthful inclinations. At the same time, its youth means it has something to prove. It has to prove it can wrangle with the adults. The only problem? It is not the unique shows that are catching on, but the safe bets: House, Bones, 24, and American Idol. So if one of their shows doesn’t impress right away, it’s like a pre-teen desperately hiding their Pokémon cards so that the older kids don’t think he’s a little child. Then again, given that this is the network that brought us such fantastic shows like When Animals Attack, The Simple Life and Joe Millionare, maybe it does come down to the simple fact that Fox is as shallow as it appears and really does only care about ratings and nothing else, and thereby justifies its “sink or swim” approach to programming.
Obviously, this is all conjecture. We can postulate till the cows come home, because will this ultimately make you feel better about the fact that Fox screwed over that show that you loved, sending it to the television graveyard? Not really. Take comfort in at least knowing that, in time, your wounds will heal. Just don’t expect the bitterness to go away. That will probably take a while.