Animation Domination A look back at FOX's animated comedies

Once upon a time, there were three broadcast networks on TV: ABC, CBS, and NBC. This changed in 1986 with the invention of the fourth network, FOX, which started off only airing on weekends before slowly but surely expanding to other days. To this day, it does not air programming in the 10pm hour. Understandably, the network struggled a bit in the beginning, with only a couple shows, such as sitcom Married...with Children keeping the network afloat.

The Venture Into Animation

In 1989, the new network took a huge gamble in ordering animated sitcom The Simpsons to series. Although it was a recurring sketch on The Tracy Ullman Show since 1987, it would be the first animated series to air in prime time since The Flintstones ended in 1966.

The Simpsons in 1987 (top left), first episode (bottom left), and early promo poster (right)

It premiered Sundays at 8:30 as a winter replacement, and consistently grew out of its America's Most Wanted lead-in. Its first season ranked #28 across all networks, being the first time FOX placed a show in the top 30. Interestingly enough, it received 27.8 million viewers and was watched in almost one out of every four households, something no show is able to reach today. 

What FOX did next is something that many thought would be a drastic mistake: they moved The Simpsons to Thursdays and aired it at 8, 8:30, 10, AND 10:30, all in one night (one of the few instances the network ventured into the 10pm hour). This meant that it would be going up against the #1 show of the previous year, The Cosby Show, as well as L.A. Law and A Different World, both of which were higher-rated than The Simpsons, the latter placing in the top 5. Miraculously, The Simpsons survived. Although it went down from #28 to #34, it also took a sizable chunk away from The Cosby Show, which dropped from the top spot to #5, and then again to #18. This was enough to make it weaker than two of the other comedies airing in the same NBC comedy block.

Still, FOX had many troubles. They had struggled to place any show in the top 100 in the ratings, with only The Simpsons and whichever show they chose to air after it being successes. The next logical step, of course, was to expand their array in the animated department.

The Next Big Thing

FOX premiered animated comedy sucess King of the Hill in 1997, and ran it until 2010.

After a handful of short-lived series and specials, FOX decided to pair The Simpsons with new animated entry King of the Hill on Sundays from 8-9pm. The former became even more of a relative success than in earlier seasons, reaching #18. However, the true news was King of the Hill's ability to actually rate higher than its lead-in, acheiving the #15 spot in its freshmen series. For once, FOX had found a new genuine hit.

The Animated Boom of 1999

Family Guy (top left), The PJs (top right), and Futurama (bottom) all premiered in 1999 as a result of FOX's recent animated sitcom success.

At this point, FOX realized that they were on to something with their animated sitcoms. As a result, they ordered three more for the 1999-2000 TV season: Family Guy, The PJs, and Futurama. So then what they did was sandwhich the new shows between the two veterans, and they all lived happily ever after.

The Downfall of FOX Animation

I lied. In fact, FOX's way of treating their animated comedies in 1999 was pretty much Failure 101. Here's a breakdown:

  • The PJs was quickly cancelled before being picked up by short-lived network The WB
  • Family Guy premiered on Thursdays to low ratings, being the only animated comedy to air on that night
  • King of the Hill was moved to 7:30pm to make room for Futurama, which received the best treatment of the three new entries. Unfortunately for FOX, King of the Hill was nowhere near the hit it once was in its new time slot, while Futurama did not live close to expectations in that plump time slot.
  • Futurama was moved to 7pm. Although its ratings dived further, FOX did find a new hit show at 8:30 with live-action family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.
  • FOX's next "genius" idea was to move the struggling Family Guy to Thursday at 8, going head-to-head with the #1 show, Friends. Although this is the exact same move they made a decade ago with The Simpsons v. The Cosby Show, there was a key difference: Family Guy did not have the ratings to sustain such a move. Why they did not make it part of the animated block is something I will always wonder.
  • In 2002, FOX announced that it was cancelling Family Guy. One year later, Futurama was hit with the same fate, only to be revived by Comedy Central for a run from 2008 through 2013.

Gone, But...Actually Not Gone

After picking up steam in cable reruns, Family Guy became more popular than ever in the time after its cancellation. The network was stronger than ever with new reality singing competition American Idol being must-watch television, and decided to take another big gamble. In 2005, FOX revived Family Guy, while also picking up fellow Seth MacFarlane animated series American Dad!.

However, the animated block simply did not have the star-power it did several years prior. Even The Simpsons failed to make the top 50 programs of the season, with ratings being just a fraction of what they were when it first went on the air. Regardless, all four programs (King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad!, were renewed for several more seasons. King of the Hill was finally moved back from 7:30pm to 8:30pm, and FOX officially had their new Sunday block, Animation Domination.

Animation Domination Becomes MacFarlane Nation

Family Guy, American Dad!, and The Cleveland Show were all created by Seth MacFarlane.

Well, not technically. But kind of. See, when FOX retired King of the Hill, they replaced it with The Cleveland Show, which was a spin-off of the still-growing Family Guy. This meant that after The Simpsons kicked off Animation Domination at 8pm, three shows by Seth MacFarlane aired back-to-back-to-back. In somewhat of a confusing scheduling move, though, FOX never aired The Cleveland Show after Family Guy.

Animation Domination Adds a Fifth Show

Bob's Burgers premiered in 2011, becoming the fifth animated show in the Sunday block.

After the raunchy-ness of Family Guy, American Dad!, and The Cleveland Show, FOX premiered Bob's Burgers, a less-adult animated sitcom. It premiered at 8:30pm following The Simpsons, where it thpically held a good retention rate. This meant the move of The Cleveland Show to 7:30, where it failed to find traction, and was cancelled after its fourth season.

FOX Plays Favorites At The Expense Of Animation Domination

Cosmos not only underwhelmed itself, but also cost FOX's Animation Domination ratings,

After having a stable line-up with The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers, Family Guy, and American Dad! (airing in that order from 8-10), FOX announced that in early 2014, they would premiere science documentary Cosmos at 9pm while also keeping all four animated comedies on the air. The lineup would consist of Bob's Burgers at 7pm, American Dad! at 7:30, The Simpsons at 8, Family Guy at 8:30, and Cosmos at 9. This was an obvious disruption, considering that three of FOX's four animated shows moved to different time slots due to Cosmos.

After a strong start, Cosmos dipped to average, and then sub-par ratings. Meanwhile, Bob's Burgers started hitting levels so low that it was almost unbelievable, hitting a 0.6 in the Adults18-49 demo at one point, while American Dad! was doing no better than its lead-in, if at all. Bob's Burgers was kept alive for two reasons: one being that it was very close to syndication, and the other being that it already had several unaired and unscheduled episodes ready at the conclusion of the series. American Dad!, however, was ruthlessly cancelled. TBS, which realized that its cancellation was mainly the result of inferior treatment to Cosmos, picked the show up for a 12th season/9th production code.

FOX's Animated Line-Up Today

Bob's Burgers (top left), Family Guy (bottom left), and The Simpsons (right) were the three FOX animated comedies to air in the 2014-2015 TV season.

For the first time in a decade, FOX aired live-action sitcoms on Sunday nights. Although Family Guy moved back to its normal 9pm time slot, Bob's Burgers did not see the same privilege, losing its old time slot to live-action comedy Brooklyn 9-9. The 9:30pm time slot was originally given to freshmen ratings turkey Mulaney. After quickly being moved away from that prime slot, Bob's Burgers took over for a little while before The Last Man On Earth premiered. The former also missed out on a Simpsons-Family Guy crossover earlier in the season.

FOX has also expanded their animated comedies to a late-night block, where shows such as Lucas Brothers Co., Axe Cop, and High School USA have aired. All are rated TV-MA, making their content unsuitable for prime time. However, they have made one entry, Golan the Insatiable, into a prime time show, which airs in the summer of 2015.

Mulaney (left), The Last Man On Earth (center), and Brooklyn 9-9 (right) all aired on Sundays, marking the end of Animation Domination.

Also, a couple interesting tidbits:

  • John Mulaney (Mulaney), Will Forte (The Last Man On Earth) and Andy Samberg (Brooklyn 9-9) all worked on Saturday Night Live prior to starting in their respective shows.
  • Kristen Schaal, who portrays Carol in The Last Man On Earth, also voices Louise on Bob's Burgers.

The Future Of FOX Animation

Bordertown will premiere as a midseason entry in 2016 as a midseason replacement.

Although originally intended to replace American Dad!, Seth MacFarlane's new animated sitcom Bordertown has been delayed several times. This is most likely due to the team of animators being behind on the very time-consuming process, but could also mean a lack of faith FOX has with the show. Its place on the schedule is currently unannounced.

Whether or not Bordertown rates well enough to warrant a renewal will be unknown for quite some time, but it is worth noting the overall decline of FOX's animated sitcoms. Although they do outstanding when airing outside of football, The Simpsons and Family Guy have both seen series lows this season, and based on its current ratings trajectory Bob's Burgers probably does not have much left in it after the remaining 30, give or take, episodes air. Whether FOX continues with animated sitcoms in the future or not is up to future ratings trends, but it is safe to say that the risk of picking up The Simpsons in 1989 is something that became the beginning of a very legendary era.

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