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When I think of the Fox network, I can't help but think of Sylvester Stallone.

The muscle-bound, lovable lunk of an actor toiled for years in relative obscurity. A bit part in "Bananas" here. A role in "Death Race 2000" there. Steady work, sure, but not exactly an on-ramp to the expressway of Fame and Fortune.

So Stallone -- muscle-bound, lovable lunk that he was -- hatched upon a seemingly infallible scheme. He would strike the mother lode of Celebrity by doing what came naturally -- playing a muscle-bound, lovable lunk in movie after movie until America clutched him to its collective bosom.

"Rocky" -- in which he played a muscle-bound, lovable lunk who pummels a seemingly more talented boxer into a bloody pulp -- won him acclaim. "Rocky II" -- in which he played the same muscle-bound, lovable lunk who pummels the same seemingly more talented boxer into a bloody pulp -- made him a fortune. And "Rocky III" -- the same muscle-bound lovable lunk pummels a man with funny hair into a bloody pulp -- made him a demigod.

The particulars might change from time to time for Stallone, but in those early, heady days of stardom, the formula never did. Take a muscle-bound, lovable lunk and set him loose on the evil sheriff ("First Blood"), Vietnamese ("Rambo: First Blood II"), criminals ("Cobra," "Tango & Cash") or Bolsheviks ("Rocky IV," "Rambo III") who done him wrong.

By staying tried and true to a winning game plan, Stallone became an international superstar. He was handed the keys to forklifts loaded down with money. He snagged part-ownership in a chain of poorly-run, high-priced, inexplicably popular eateries. He got to schtup Brigitte Nielsen. And he blazed a path for other muscle-bound, lovable lunks -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme, Mickey Rourke -- to win their just share of fame, fortune, and Brigitte Nielsen.

But somewhere along the way, Stallone grew tired of the money and the celebrity and the extremely tall, freakishly proportioned Nordic women. There was something missing from Stallone's life -- the praise and respect of a grateful nation for a job well done. So Stallone -- in what would prove to be a miscalculation of horrific proportions -- decided to branch out and stop dancing with the gal who brung him.

And the gal who brung him turned out to be a jealous, conniving bitch, who did not take kindly to Sly's thoughtless snub.

Stallone tried his hand at comedy in cinematic misfires like "Oscar" and "Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot." He tried to bring a subtle, quiet nuance to the heretofore misunderstood world of arm wrestling in "Over the Top," only to be met with catcalls and hoots from an unforgiving public. He took a stab at singing in "Rhinestone," directing in "Staying Alive," and being fat in "Copland." And each time, the masses who once cheered him now gave him a hearty helping of studied indifference.

Is it any wonder then that once his best efforts to prove he's something other than a muscle-bound, lovable lunk have gone over like a lead zeppelin, Stallone is coming back to his action-adventure roots on all fours? "Rambo IV" is apparently in the works, and all appearance are that it will not in any way feature Stallone singing, dancing or interacting comically with the likes of Estelle Getty. And that's probably for the best.

"All right, Michaels," you may be thinking -- that is, assuming we've been properly introduced. "That's certainly a concise yet thorough summation of Sly Stallone's career, and I appreciate off-hand references to 'Rhinestone' as much as the next guy. But what in the hell has this do with the dadgum Fox network?"

I'm glad you asked.

The much-maligned, little-watched TV network toiled in obscurity for years. A Beans Baxter here. A Drexel's Class there. Programs that filled that troublesome airtime, sure, but not the kind of broadcasting that brings accolades, Emmys, or more importantly, stacks and stacks of cash.

So the Fox suits -- much-maligned, little-watched network executives that they were -- hatched up a seemingly infallible scheme. They would establish themselves as a legitimate television network by doing what came naturally -- airing program after program of shows that appealed to the lowest common denominator until America sat there stupefied on its collective couch.

The names might change from time to time for Fox -- Married: With Children, Herman's Head, Babes, Down The Shore -- but the formula never did. Take a sitcom, throw in a couple of women with large breasts, add a laugh track where the studio audience whoops and hollers no matter how trite the material and run some yay-hoo promotion touting the show as "another outrageous comedy from Fox!" For variety, throw in some bubble-gummy teenage angst programming like Beverly Hills 90210 or The Heights, and you've got yourself a network that Ed O'Neill himself is proud to appear on.

By staying tried and true to a winning game plan, Fox became -- well, not a respected network -- but at least a legitimate one. It won the hearts of young viewers with attractive demographics. It snagged pro football from CBS. It didn't ever broadcast an outrageous sitcom starring Brigitte Nielsen... but it very well could have! And it blazed the way for other much-maligned, little watched TV networks -- UPN and the WB -- to air outrageous comedies of their own.

But somewhere along the way, Fox looked like it was beginning to behave itself. The Simpsons is recognized as one of the funniest shows on TV by anyone with a functioning brain stem. King of the Hill is turning into a weekly hoot in its own right. The X Files has begun winning Emmys. Is Fox making the same unwise departure from its winning formula that foiled Sylvester Stallone?

All's I can say is thank goodness for reality based programming. Because just when it seemed that Fox was going legit, along comes "World's Deadliest Swarms."

You may have caught a glimpse of the special when it aired on Fox in November. Millions of other people did. Because who wouldn't want to spend an evening at home with the family, gathered in front of the TV set to watch fire ants and piranhas devour all in their path?

"World's Deadliest Swarms," "World's Scariest Police Chases III," "When Animals Attack" -- all have aired on Fox in recent months and all more or less fit the same m.o. Cobble together an hour of footage featuring mayhem, bloodshed and varying degrees of human tragedy. Hire James Brown as host -- the shameless Fox employee, and not the one who's the Godfather of Soul -- and you have yourself a special Rupert Murdoch his own bad self would be proud to watch.

Fox doesn't just wait until Sweeps months to air footage of foiled convenience store robberies and rabid animal rampages. On Saturdays, it treats TV audiences to a double helping of Cops, the show that proves that if nothing else, our once deadly streets are safe from the scourge of domestic disputes amongst white trash. And Sunday nights bring a heaping dose of hilarity with the dubiously named World's Funniest, featuring rib-tickling footage of babies, animals and people getting slugged in the groin.

This may sound similar to the rib-tickling footage of babies, animals and people getting slugged in the groin on America's Funniest Home Videos, airing over on ABC for what seems like an eternity. But the two shows couldn't be more different. World's Funniest features the ubiquitous James Brown. America's Funniest Home Videos stars Daisy Fuentes, who, for my money, isn't on my TV near enough.

Of course, Fox has its limits. In November, the network was set to air "Prisoners Out of Control," which as the title suggests was more or less an hour of prison riot footage. Sadly, Fox pulled the show off the schedule at the last second, apparently concluding that broadcasting tape of gutshot guards and rampaging felons might come off as a might bit crass.

But fear not, mayhem fans! "Prisoners Out of Control" is being re-edited, so the sight of a thrice-convicted armed robber impaling an innocent bystander's skull with a sawed-off cue stick will soon be winging its way to your home, perhaps in time for Easter.

Fox loves its reality-based programming. First off, the shows can be produced quickly and on the cheap and James Brown seems to enjoy the extra work. And secondly, people watch in droves, the promise of spectacular car crashes and groin injuries a-plenty apparently enough to lure us away from reading that collection of James Joyce stories we had been hoping to finish.

That hasn't stopped Fox's competitors from crying foul. Detractors have called the programming everything from "sensationalistic" to "snuff films." And that includes network executives not exactly known for their devotion to all things high-brow.

"We would never air anything like that," sniffed NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer.

(Memo to Don: In 1992, NBC aired I Witness Video, a series that, according to my TV reference book focused on "real-life violence, disaster and calamities, using home videotapes submitted by viewers." Perhaps Don had the show confused with Wings.)

I have only one objection to this seeming Golden Age of Reality Programming. Say I'm at the zoo, maybe standing by the gorilla exhibit, when some thoughtless oaf pushes me into the cage and locks the door. The way things are going, passersby are more likely to whip out their video cameras to film the ensuing carnage than they are to run for help. That's not a comforting thought, what with me being such a fan of the gorilla exhibit and all.

But try as I might to conjure up a good fit of moral outrage aimed at Fox, I really can't. They're just trying to get high ratings any way they can. And sadly, those Wagnerian opera telecasts aren't packing in viewers the way they used to. Besides, the last time I checked, no one was forcing millions of viewers to watch footage of some madman speeding down a highway in a stolen Army tank or videotape of a horde of sand fleas feasting on some doomed adventurer's skull. Want to blame someone for the success of "Catastrophes Caught On Tape" and "Video Justice II?" Try the sick bastards who are tuning in -- and that's you and me, Slim.

So, I say, why fight it? The February Sweeps are just a few weeks away, and unless that revised edition of "Prisoners Out of Control" is fit for public consumption, Fox is going to need ideas for more reality-type specials. As a service to Fox Entertainment President Peter Roth, here are a few ideas for specials that the TV viewing populace wouldn't dare miss. Why am I'm doing it? Because I'm a big-hearted slob, that's why.

Just spell my name right on the check, Pete.

  • When Pro Athletes Attack: Looking to get an autograph from your favorite power forward or the star quarterback? Best beware, because today's athlete walks a fine line between basic human decency and out-of-control savagery. And our Fox cameras are there when that line is crossed! Host James Brown and Latrell Sprewell will take you on an eye-opening cavalcade of sideline scuffles, barroom batteries and other locker room hijinks.

  • Sucking Chest Wounds: Nothing's quite as impressive as seeing a gaping hole where your sternum used to be! Whether it's a shotgun blast at close range or a javelin lodged in the right ventricle, our James Brown is there, wading knee-deep in the blood and assorted viscous fluids to keep you entertained!

  • World's Most Comical Groin Injuries: Keep those legs crossed, America! Bob Saget is back and he's brought plenty of videotape with him. See what happens when various and sundry groins are kicked, poked, prodded, zapped with 100 volts of electricity, run over by a Honda and pelted with medium-sized rocks.

  • When Joe E. Tata Attacks: On "Beverly Hills 90210," he seems safe enough as kindly restaurateur Nat Bussichio. But don't let that fool you -- veteran character actor Joe E. Tata is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode! And explode he will, in this heart-stopping special hosted by Ian Ziering. You'll see Joe E. Tata cut someone off on the freeway, give a savage dressing-down to a Fox intern and, quite possibly, knock off a bank.1

  • Wonderful World of Bludgeoning: What a marvel the human skull is -- the cradle of reason, the birthplace of thought. Too bad it doesn't react well to blunt force trauma, as hostess Daisy Fuentes shows in this delightful special.

  • Horrific Human Suffering Caught on Tape: In 1978, hundreds of people died at the hands of a twisted cult leader in the Jonestown massacre. And we've got the footage!

  • World's Deadliest Stunts Involving the French: This special, hosted by James Brown and Joe E. Tata2, combines the two things Americans are clamoring to see -- deadly stunts and bad things happening to French people! You'll thrill to the sight of deadly car chases down the Champs Élysées, comical groin injuries to guys wearing berets and the Nazi occupation of Paris in the 1940s.

  • When Network Executives Run Out of Ideas: Could anything be more heart-stopping than TV programmers stumped for what shows to air during Sweeps? We think not! And when you see footage of Warren Littlefield, Peter Roth, Les Moonves and Jamie Tarses resorting to even more reality-based shows to compensate for their utter lack of new ideas, we think you'll agree.

1: Editor's Note: To our knowledge, veteran character Joe E. Tata is a fine, upstanding individual who has never cut off anyone on the freeway or tried his hand at bank robbery. We have no earthly idea why Michaels would say such horrible things about Mr. Tata, but rest assured, it will not happen again.

2: Editor's Note: D'oh!


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