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Rupert Murdoch's greatest TV legacy isn't Fox News. It's Bart Simpson and Al Bundy.

The Simpsons proved the Fox network's biggest, most noteworthy hit after it debuted in December 1989.
The Simpsons proved the Fox network's biggest, most noteworthy hit after it debuted in December 1989.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Rupert Murdoch, who is stepping down as CEO of 21st Century Fox, is often discussed in terms of the way his politics have influenced the news industry.

Fox News, in particular, ushered in a seismic shift for cable news networks when it debuted in 1996. Whereas CNN styled itself as the ultimate authority, Fox News went directly for that "other" network's jugular, selling itself as the "fair and balanced" choice. Regardless of your feelings on the network's right-wing politics, it was brilliant marketing and a brilliant way to stand out in a crowded field.

But there was no reason to be surprised. Murdoch's true masterstroke came 10 years before the launch of Fox News, when he bought up some local TV stations and created the Fox Broadcasting Company — which would ultimately become the Fox network. If Fox News marked a significant change for the TV landscape, then Fox Broadcasting was downright earth-shaking.

Indeed, if you love good television, you probably have more of a reason to thank Rupert Murdoch than you might like to admit.

Let's revisit the TV world of 1985

In 1985, when Murdoch first embarked on the path that would create the Fox network, the TV world was tiny.

For all intents and purposes, ABC, CBS, and NBC were the only games in town. PBS existed, but it primarily aired children's programming, documentaries, and the occasional British import. Many of today's most popular cable networks were around as well, but they largely aired the cheapest shows they could procure. Even HBO was only dabbling lightly in scripted programming (with the O. J. Simpson vehicle 1st and 10, among others).

There had been attempts to start at a fourth network in the past, and even more rumors of such efforts. Notably, in the early days of TV, ABC sparred with the short-lived DuMont Network to determine which of the two would join CBS and NBC to form the trio of networks that would come to be known in future decades as the Big Three. After DuMont folded in 1956, the TV landscape remained largely unchanged for 30 years.

The era's limited technology was partly responsible for the medium's stagnancy. So were the government's regulations of the industry, via the so-called fin-syn rules, which made it extremely difficult for production studios to air their series on networks owned by the same corporation — a very basic building block of how the TV schedule is assembled today.

In the beginning, many saw Fox as a sure-to-be-doomed folly. And for many years, its ratings were microscopic in comparison to those of CBS, ABC, and NBC. But little by little, it began to gain, and in so doing, it kicked off the modern TV era. By the early 2000s, it was the number-one network in America.

Married ... With Children and The Simpsons put Fox on the map

It's a misconception to believe that TV suddenly "became good" when The Sopranos arrived on the scene in 1999, as if everything that preceded it was trash. The evolution of television is best described as series of huge leaps (like The Sopranos), followed by slow, incremental progress. But what often goes unremarked upon is the fact that those huge leaps usually require some entirely new space in which to exist.

What's notable about television in the late '80s is just how much of the innovation was driven by third-place ABC and fourth-place (and fledgling) Fox. Murdoch knew from his time working in British tabloids that aggressively blazing a trail through territory nobody else was occupying was one way to draw eyeballs. And if that meant going for the slightly smutty, so be it. No early Fox show fit that description better than Married ... With Children.

Married wasn't a great show, but it was a necessary one in terms of how thoroughly it blew up the clichés of the family sitcom and laughed at how ungrounded they were reality. Indeed, the series' working title was Not the Cosbys, and its attitude of simply not giving a shit about network propriety served it well. Married was the network's first major hit, eventually rising as high as 29th in the Nielsen ratings, which wasn't bad for a network that at the time was still unavailable in much of the country.

The true breakthrough, however, was 1990's The Simpsons. A spinoff of The Tracey Ullman Show (which was funny in its own right), The Simpsons was a primetime animated sitcom, something nobody had tried since the late '70s. Again, simply being new gave Fox latitude to experiment with edgier, newer things.

From there, a long string of TV-changing shows followed, with everything from In Living Color to The X-Files to Melrose Place to Arrested Development originating on the network. Fox gained a reputation for canceling daring or promising shows too quickly, but it only gained that reputation because it was one of the few networks willing to put those shows on the air in the first place. That risk-taking is baked into the network's DNA in a way it's just not at any of the other networks.

And everybody noticed

The story of TV in the 1990s isn't a woeful tale of bland shows that were annihilated by the atomic bomb that was The Sopranos. It's a much more optimistic yarn about a whole bunch of shows pushing and occasionally tearing up the envelope. The Simpsons and The X-Files were two of them, sure, but so were Twin Peaks and Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show.

What Fox realized fairly early on is that it didn't need to be a huge hit to command attention. Yes, it helped that The Simpsons and later Married ... With Children landed in the Nielsen top 30, and it was great when The Simpsons briefly bested The Cosby Show in the ratings during its second season. But taking the time to build marginal programs (like The X-Files) into major hits could also bolster the network. The TV landscape was changing to reward programs with passionate fan bases, slowly but surely.

Inevitably, somebody would have picked up on this shift. Cable networks were already toying with their own scripted programming in the mid-'80s, and it's hard to picture the rise of, say, HBO's original programming being impacted by what was happening on Fox. But Murdoch and Fox got there first. They didn't just blow up the TV industry; they blew up what TV was supposed to be. The TV world we live in now is at least partially built atop their shoulders.