Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"21 Jump Street," Johnny Depp, and the Rise of FOX

In an earlier post, I explored how studios revive old television and film franchises in a quarter-century cycle (See http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2011/10/return-of-mid-1980s.html.) And like clockwork, Hollywood is now recycling shows from the late 1980s, as the film version of “21 Jump Street” premieres this week.  “Jump Street” has not aired in syndication for many years and is a largely forgotten program, but it was one of the early FOX shows and helped launch the network as well as Johnny Depp’s acting career.

When “21 Jump Street” debuted in the spring of 1987 as part of FOX’s first primetime lineup, Rupert Murdoch’s dream of challenging the decades-old dominance of ABC, NBC, and CBS seemed like a fantasy.  The program, which revolved around a group of youthful-looking police officers working undercover in American high schools, appeared on the air before early FOX hits like “The Simpsons” or “Beverly Hills 90210.”  The then-unknown Depp became the center of the ensemble cast, which led to roles in films like “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), the first of seven collaborations with director Tim Burton.

While FOX struggled in the ratings in its early years, the network’s fortunes got a huge boost when Murdoch acquired the rights to the National Football Conference (NFC) football package in 1993.  At the time, the NFC was dominating the NFL with its streak of 13 consecutive Super Bowl victories, and featured bigger markets (Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas) than the weaker AFC.  After this coup, FOX acquired stronger affiliates and the network became a genuine competitor to the Big Three. 

Once the entertainment network attained a secure foothold, the FOX News Channel started a few years later in 1996.  With the help of longtime GOP operative Roger Ailes, Murdoch sought to dethrone CNN as leader of the 24-hour cable news market.  The network quickly became a success, carving out a niche with conservative viewers unhappy with the supposed liberal bias of the mainstream media.  By 2002, it had surpassed CNN and has usually led the news ratings race ever since.  In a landmark for cable news in 2004, more people watched the Republican National Convention on FOX News than any other network, including the old broadcast networks.

As FOX News became a controversial success, its entertainment counterpart became the most popular broadcast network for the coveted 18-49 year-old demographic.  With shows like “24” and “House” in its lineup, along with the unbelievable popularity of “American Idol,” FOX defeated the major networks among younger viewers from 2004 to 2009.

Today, FOX is thriving while NBC, which dominated the ratings race during the 1980s and 90s, barely has a pulse among viewers.  Over the same period, Depp became a bankable leading man as well as highly respected actor with three Oscar nominations.  Without “21 Jump Street,” there might never have been a FOX News Channel or a Captain Jack Sparrow.  Is this a good or a bad thing?  I blog.  You decide.

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