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April 5, 1987: The Fourth Network
The Fox broadcast network’s grand opening.
On April 5, 1987, the official grand opening of Fox as the fourth American television network began a contemporary period of television where an insurgent channel successfully challenges the domination of the historic “Big Three” networks. The rise of Fox’s network arm also fueled the rise of the cable arm, which has had a significant impact on political narratives and news literacy. Fox slid into the American zeitgeist at a time of fragmented media and the resulting formation of cultural echo chambers.
There were numerous attempts to create a fourth television network from the 1950s to the 1980s. As attempts to compete against the “Big Three” (NBC, CBS, and ABC) fizzled out, film studios like 20th Century Fox continued to produce content for television. TCF Television Productions, owned by 20th, produced shows for television like Batman and M*A*S*H.
In the 1980s, TCF would be one of the entry points for the creation of a new network as Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation took a large share of TCF and bought up other independent television stations in major cities across the nation. Not long after the intention of creating a fourth network was made public.
Fox’s entry into a market dominated by established giants meant finding creative ways to dodge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) while also making larger-than-normal investments in order to build mass audiences and appeal in a relatively rapid manner. For starters, Fox slow-rolled its programming lineup and thus made revenue in a manner that avoided fees associated with being an FCC-based network and governed by the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules. This was a model to be followed by other emerging channels. Also, the FCC required manufacturers of TVs to have the capability of ultra-high frequency broadcasting (UHF), which were Fox affiliates struggling in media markets. UHF channels were acquired by Fox in cities with the highest barriers to entry (already established channels) despite UHF channels being less common than very high frequency (VHF) channels. In the late 1950s, networks aiming to rise alongside NBC, ABC, and CBS did not have the benefit of this requirement.
Fox premiered a soft launch in October 1986 with the premiere of a Late Show that did not do too well and even scared away some local affiliates.
However, the premiere of Married…with Children and The Tracy Ullman Show began a slow rise to network prominence.
By the dawn of the 1990s, a show that was only a short within The Tracy Ullman Show became its own program known to history as The Simpsons. This series is famously the longest-running scripted American television series in primetime. It was also the first Fox series to break into the Nielson Top 30 (28th). An upward trajectory was set in motion and throughout the 1990s, Fox would expand from just Saturday and Sunday programming to eventually filling primetime slots throughout the week. The new network wanted to appeal to audiences that seemed underserved or untouched, like a burgeoning 18-42, a growing demand for teen-based dramas, as well as programming featured for Black audiences.
In Living Color
Fox also found a staple in documentary series like Cops and America’s Most Wanted. As 20th Century Fox was a notable brand, the television network decided to run with the Searchlight aesthetic.
By the end of the decade, the network had a variety of programming to enter the new millennium.
That 70s Show
At the very beginning of the 1990s, Fox also dipped its toe into cable broadcasting by acquiring an agreement with the biggest cable company at the time, Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) and expand the reach of Fox content to smaller markets not served by over-the-air Fox affiliates.
Foxnet would be the name of this new cable station.
But the channel’s fortunes wouldn’t be crystallized without acquiring popular live events. In this way, Fox’s attainment of NFL broadcasting rights, specifically for National Football Conference (NFC) games would prove to be a gold mine for the insurgent network. This is still the case today. To this day, Fox receives its largest audiences during primetime football games and super bowls.
Fox also has the current U.S. broadcasting rights to the FIFA World Cup through 2026.
The first Super Bowl aired on Fox was in 1997: Super Bowl XXXI. Outside of lower regulations, much of the success of Fox’s starting years comes out of Rupert Murdoch’s openness to invest large sums of money into this project. When attaining NFL rights, Fox surprisingly countered the CBS offer of approximately $256 million per year (over four years) with an overt $1.56 billion dollar offer and rights to cyclical Super Bowl coverage.
The new century would see Fox rush to the top of the Nielson charts with two new series. One was used as a lead-out for the other in some years. One of the programs became television’s most-watched reality show.
American Idol and House were two top-rated shows that allowed Fox to surpass its former competition. American Idol traveled the nation searching for America’s most favored voice while House featured a cynical doctor solving esoteric medical mysteries. Both were mainstays in my house growing up.
American Idol is still the most recent U.S. television program to reach over 30 million viewers for two seasons (at the very least). For the first week of May sweeps in 2006, House was 4th with 22.7 million viewers behind CSI and American Idol (holding the top two slots with 29.25 and 28.58 million viewers). In the prior year, 2005, Fox had its first sweeps victory over other networks. The channel that was fighting a beastly NBC Thursday lineup in the 90s and establishing itself in a market ruled for decades by overwhelmingly established forces was now competing for number one in just under two decades of existence. Today, Fox still leads during primetime football events and sometimes with the most recent reality TV competition show, The Masked Singer.
After Foxnet, Murdoch’s cable ambitions flowered with the start of Fox News and the Fox Sports Networks. The film properties would have Fox Movie Channel (FXM).
Rupert Murdoch’s emergence into television expanded his media empire and allowed him and his cabal to godfather several brands under a formation of private entities. However, this empire contracted after a deal with The Walt Disney Company gave the Mouse ownership of most of the intellectual properties outside of news and sports content. Born out of the Disney-20th century Fox deal was the Fox Corporation, which still oversees affiliate and cable operations.
Still in the auspices of this new Fox is one conspicuous channel. For the local networks didn’t have a national news show, however, that was covered with the beginning of Fox News in 1996.
Fox “News” has increasingly turned into an overtly toxic alternative force in American life. It seeks to criticize the mainstream media just for political gains narrowly working towards right-wing agendas. It refuses to admit its own place in the mainstream. Fox has hosted election deniers and spread cultist conspiracies about individuals no matter the harm to their family or memory. It’s easy for Fox News to hide in the shadows as the revanchist and political operation it always was when the larger parent brands covered so much territory. They can frame overly critical detractors as myopic and not focusing on the larger issues with sensationalism and television as a communications platform.
However, the text messages from the Dominion lawsuit show editorial decisions from the top going down that intentionally imperiled American democracy for ratings and fear of missing out.
As detached as network operations may seem (unpacking the relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting is for another article), it exists within a branding sphere that gives fake news credibility, thus covering for the corporation’s negative externalities. As a continuing trend of much of the Grifted Age, one man’s war-like corporate instincts becomes a harbinger for the death of community consciousness and cohesion.
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