Debuts, Anchoring the Fledgling Fox Network

The first prime-time animated program on television in nearly two decades, The Simpsons struck a nerve in American society and helped to launch a new network.

Summary of Event

When The Simpsons made its series debut on January 14, 1990, as the first animated series on prime-time television since The Flintstones and The Jetsons of the early 1960’s, it represented not only an enormously successful venture for the fledgling fourth network, Fox, but also a bona fide cultural phenomenon. This seemingly modest situation comedy had ramifications far beyond those caused by the usual network fare. Simpsons, The (television program)
Television programs;The Simpsons[Simpsons]
Fox television network
[kw]Simpsons Debuts, Anchoring the Fledgling Fox Network, The (Jan. 14, 1990)
[kw]Debuts, Anchoring the Fledgling Fox Network, The Simpsons (Jan. 14, 1990)
[kw]Fox Network, The Simpsons Debuts, Anchoring the Fledgling (Jan. 14, 1990)
Simpsons, The (television program)
Television programs;The Simpsons[Simpsons]
Fox television network
[g]North America;Jan. 14, 1990: The Simpsons Debuts, Anchoring the Fledgling Fox Network[07610]
[g]United States;Jan. 14, 1990: The Simpsons Debuts, Anchoring the Fledgling Fox Network[07610]
[c]Radio and television;Jan. 14, 1990: The Simpsons Debuts, Anchoring the Fledgling Fox Network[07610]
Groening, Matt
Brooks, James L.
Simon, Sam
Diller, Barry
Murdoch, Rupert

The Simpsons was the brainchild of alternative cartoonist Matt Groening, who had previously been best known as the creator of Life in Hell, Life in Hell (Groening)
Comic strips;Life in Hell a weekly comic strip syndicated in more than two hundred alternative and college newspapers. Groening, the son of parents named Homer and Margaret, grew up in Portland, Oregon, and attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, a progressive institution that gave neither examinations nor grades. He thrived in this unstructured environment, working on the school newspaper and studying journalism, literature, philosophy, and filmmaking.

After graduating in 1977, Groening moved to Los Angeles to launch a writing career. His life there initially proved so miserable that he began sketching comic strips to express his anger and frustration. These strips eventually evolved into Life in Hell, which appeared for the first time in the Los Angeles Reader in April of 1980. By 1988, the cartoon strip had turned into a successful proposition, spawning calendars, greeting cards, T-shirts, posters, and the popular book collections Work Is Hell (1986), Work Is Hell (Groening)
School Is Hell (1987), School Is Hell (Groening) and Childhood Is Hell (1988). Childhood Is Hell (Groening)

In 1987, James L. Brooks, the Emmy Award-winning creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi and the Oscar-winning director of Terms of Endearment (1983) and Broadcast News (1987), asked Groening to create a series of animated “bumpers” from his strip to air between skits on the Fox network’s The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Ullman Show, The (television program)
Television programs;The Tracey Ullman Show[Tracey Ullman Show] which was produced by Brooks’s company. Instead, Groening created a new set of characters who went on to appear in forty-nine brief (fifteen- to twenty-second) segments on the show. From this modest beginning, the Simpson family was born. The segments proved so popular that Fox requested thirteen half-hour episodes featuring the Simpsons to debut in 1989. Groening and Brooks, together with situation comedy writer Sam Simon, became executive producers of Fox’s newest show, The Simpsons.

The Simpsons actually debuted on December 17, 1989, in a Christmas special, which was repeated on December 23; the regular series debuted on January 14, 1990. The series became an almost immediate hit, zooming into the top fifteen of the A. C. Nielsen ratings within two months of its debut (at a time when the Fox network reached viewers in only four-fifths of the United States). The Simpson family captured the national imagination, appealing particularly to young people. It quickly gave rise to a variety of commercial products and became the topic of much commentary and editorializing.

Fox moved the phenomenally popular show to Thursday night opposite The Cosby Show, Cosby Show, The (television program) an established, long-running National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC) hit, in a move calculated to bring even more publicity to the series and the brash new network. Media commentators discussed the programming move in terms of David and Goliath: the young, upstart network bravely challenging the establishment culture and doing very well indeed.

The Simpson family hails from the fictional all-American town of Springfield (not coincidentally, the name of the hometown of the Anderson family of the 1950’s comedy series Father Knows Best) Father Knows Best (television program) and is headed by bald, overweight Homer, a dim bulb who is totally unqualified for his job as safety inspector at the local nuclear power plant. Fond of doughnuts and Duff beer (the local brew), Homer dispenses such bad advice to his children as “Never say anything until you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same way” and “Being popular is the most important thing in the whole world.” His wife, Marge, whose most distinctive features are her towering blue beehive hairdo and throaty voice, is more intelligent and sensitive than Homer (she was an ardent, although somewhat clueless, feminist when she met Homer in high school), but she too is overwhelmed by the world. Ten-year-old Bart (an anagram of “brat”) is an authority-flouting, wisecracking smart aleck whose favorite expressions, “Ay, caramba,” “Don’t have a cow, man,” and “Eat my shorts,” quickly became standards in the repartee of the young. His sister Lisa, an eight-year-old intellectual and virtuoso jazz saxophone player, is often the family’s lone voice of reason. Maggie, the baby, merely observes the proceedings in silence, sucking her ever-present pacifier.

The show is populated with recurring characters, including Moe, the local bartender; Mr. Burns, Homer’s Scrooge-like boss; the next-door neighbors, a perfect Father Knows Best-type family; the mayor of Springfield, a Kennedy look-and-sound-alike politician; Krusty the Klown, a local television celebrity; and Itchy and Scratchy, stars of the gruesomely violent cartoon within a cartoon. The Simpsons turns the usual television sitcom (situation comedy) on its ear and is full of pointed cultural references, subtle irony, and satire clearly aimed at an intelligent adult audience.


The Simpsons had an immediate impact on popular culture in early 1990. The characters appeared on the covers of Rolling Stone and Newsweek, among other magazines, and their exploits were on the tongues of social and cultural commentators. Commercial spin-offs, including T-shirts, posters, talking Bart dolls, and watches, were omnipresent. College students threw Simpsons parties, Marge and Bart costumes appeared at Halloween, even the Los Angeles Lakers declared The Simpsons their favorite program. A New York research company announced that Bart ranked with sports stars Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson as the top hero of preteen boys.

Clearly a more intelligent show than the average television fare, The Simpsons attracted an audience of both children and adults, portraying the lowest common denominator while never pandering to it. Many observers saw the popularity of The Simpsons as an indication of the decline of American values; some educators banned Bart Simpson T-shirts, particularly those bearing the slogan “Underachiever and Proud of It.” Many believed that Bart glorified all that was wrong with the youth of the 1990’s; he was irreverent, undisciplined, and unmotivated, and they were horrified that he had become a folk hero. Even William Bennett, Bennett, William director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (known as the drug czar) in President George H. W. Bush’s administration, denounced Bart Simpson, but he retreated from this position when it caused public outcry.

Many commentators have asserted that the state of the television situation comedy has come to reflect the state of the American family. As one noted, television “has come to reflect its context in its content, becoming the ritual of and about the family. Everything’s okay, it says: the most outrageous problems can all be resolved, with wit and mutual trust, within a half-hour of teleplay.” In this context, The Simpsons falls into the tradition of “anti-situation comedy” that began with The Life of Riley and The Honeymooners in the 1950’s and continued with All in the Family
All in the Family (television program) in the 1970’s. In the 1990’s, the success of The Simpsons contributed to the rise of a new genre of adult-oriented animated series such as South Park and Family Guy.

Groening himself describes The Simpsons as “a mutant Ozzie and Harriet” that joins such programs as Roseanne
Roseanne (television program) and Married . . . with Children
Married . . . with Children (television program) in exposing the more squalid aspects of family life; each of these programs focuses on working-class families rather than on the upper-middle-class households portrayed in Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Some psychologists claim that such depictions of the “perfect” family induce feelings of guilt, because viewers cannot live up to the impossible ideal presented. The unidealized pictures presented in the “antifamily” comedies, on the other hand, induce feelings of sympathy and identification that are more comforting. Depending on the viewer, these depictions either signal the decline and fall of the American family or lend a welcome dose of reality to television.

Irreverent Bart Simpson is symbolic not only of the changing American family but also of the network that gave him a home. If Bart represents the family, then Fox represents the shifting sands of the network television industry. Like the staid sitcoms of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the “Big Three” networks Big Three (television networks) —NBC, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)—seemed an inevitable and invincible part of the American scene. Although constantly vying for supremacy, they ruled the airwaves virtually uncontested for decades. With the advent of cable television and video-recording technology, however, the networks’ monopoly began to crumble, and in 1986 another small chink was made in their armor when Rupert Murdoch, who had purchased Twentieth Century-Fox studios and a group of independent television stations, announced his plans for a fourth network.

Led by chairman Barry Diller, Fox debuted with a single night of shows in the spring of 1987 and by 1990 had expanded to three nights of programming. While the network had modest success, The Simpsons brought Fox into direct competition with the major networks. Fox succeeded as Bart did, by being brash and aggressive and appealing to the young and hip. Its strategy was to appeal to the eighteen- to thirty-four-year-old age group that advertisers prefer and to take more chances than the established networks. Shows such as In Living Color, In Living Color (television program)
Married . . . with Children, and such offbeat fare as It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (television program)[Its Garry Shandlings Show] and Alien Nation
Alien Nation (television program) represented Fox’s willingness to try something new. The network attempted to corner the teen market, first with 21 Jump Street
21 Jump Street (television program)[Twenty one Jump Street] and later with the overwhelmingly popular Beverly Hills 90210. Beverly Hills 90210 (television program) In self-defense, the other three networks were forced to follow suit, admitting that Fox had opened doors for them. Although Fox continued to run clearly behind the established networks, it encouraged in them a spirit of daring and experimentation.

Newsweek commentator Meg Greenfield, Greenfield, Meg admitting her fondness for The Simpsons, called it a “faithful sendup of all that is pretentious, self-important, compulsive, absurd, two-faced, pitiful and deranged in our commonplace lives.” Frank McConnell McConnell, Frank observed in Commonweal that the genius of The Simpsons “is that it deconstructs the myth of the happy family wisely and miraculously leaves what is real and valuable about the myth unscathed.” The show’s most lasting impact on American society is likely to be just this: It revealed to viewers something about themselves and their society, which is what the best of any art form is meant to do. Simpsons, The (television program)
Television programs;The Simpsons[Simpsons]
Fox television network

Further Reading

  • Elder, Sean. “Is TV the Coolest Invention Ever Invented?” Mother Jones 14 (December, 1989): 28-31. Written on the eve of The Simpsons’ success, interview with Groening presents information about his life and explores his thoughts on The Simpsons and the success of Life in Hell.
  • Kimmel, Daniel M. The Fourth Network: How Fox Broke the Rules and Reinvented Television. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004. Describes how Fox used shrewd tactics such as counterprogramming and narrowcasting to succeed as a fledgling network. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Turner, Chris. Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2004. Entertaining work presents a cultural analysis of The Simpsons and discusses the program’s impacts. Includes index.
  • Walters, Harry F. “Family Feuds.” Newsweek, April 23, 1990, 58-62. Offers an overview of the history of The Simpsons and discusses the impacts of the show on society as well as on the fortunes of the Fox television network. Places The Simpsons in the context of the history of the television situation comedy.
  • Zehme, Bill. “The Only Real People on TV.” Rolling Stone, June 28, 1990, 41-47. Written as an “interview” with members of the Simpson family, conducted in Springfield. Also includes a brief interview with Groening, Brooks, and Simon as themselves.
  • Zoglin, Richard. “Home Is Where the Venom Is.” Time, April 16, 1990, 85-86. Discusses “antifamily” situation comedies, including Roseanne, Married . . . with Children, and The Simpsons. Compares these shows to more conventional sitcoms such as Ozzie and Harriet and The Cosby Show.

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