Fox News Channel launched 25 years ago today, Rupert Murdoch setting up in an old Sam Goody store in Manhattan those many years ago, and offering viewers a little something different than the cable news they could access at the time. Among its rivals, then and now, CNN had launched in 1980, while MSNBC had premiered in July 1996.
Murdoch liked to talk up the “fair and balanced” nature of the new network, which would offer a more conservative take on the day’s events than the established TV news players, which he and Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes saw as liberal by nature.
Jon Glenn, Fox News VP of news and style, figured he’d work at Fox News for six months, then head off to law school. “The way it began, it was a little brash, in your face, faster and edgier,” said Glenn, who ran scripts in the overnight shift. “We would take risks. It was easy to take risks back then because nobody was watching.”
Fox News had live news for 10 minutes every hour, reported The New York Times on launch day, and updates every half-hour. Each hour had “Fox In Depth” deep dives on a given topic, be it religion or crime or politics.
Neil Cavuto held down the 5 p.m. weekday hour, Bill O’Reilly, formerly of Inside Edition, was on at 6, Mike Schneider at 7 and Catherine Crier at 8 p.m. Hannity and Colmes, featuring radio personalities Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, occupied the 9 p.m. slot.
As with any startup, Fox News faced early distribution challenges. In its New York home base, Cablevision Systems subscribers in the Bronx and Brooklyn could access the channel, but subscribers of Time Warner Cable, then the city’s primary cable platform, could not. Time Warner owned both the cable system and CNN.
Murdoch expanded distribution by enticing cable companies to carry the channel with a huge upfront fee of $10 per subscriber, in return for a long-term commitment. Fox News launched in 17 million U.S. homes, according to a CNN Money report at the time. MSNBC had 22 million and CNN was over 50 million.
Much was made of Fox News’s conservative bent upon launch, recalled news analyst Andrew Tyndall. Not as much was made of Fox News blowing up one of the defining characteristics of TV news — the so-called Voice of God. “It was a different tone of voice,” Tyndall said. “Vernacular speech. They added slang and sarcasm and attitude into news reading.”
In summer 1997, with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani rallying on Murdoch’s behalf, Time Warner Cable and Fox News worked out a distribution deal. Giuliani described it as ''a win-win situation for everyone involved” in the New York Times — Fox News got expanded distribution, New York retained a growing corporate client, and Time Warner Cable added a lively network.
Fox News’ freestyle delivery was a cornerstone in morning show Fox & Friends, which debuted in February 1998. Host Brian Kilmeade described the ethos as “less teleprompters and more conversation. It’s more of a free-form show where we let things happen. Whatever happens, happens.”
On the set with Kilmeade was, and is, Steve Doocy. Kilmeade joined the network to cover sports, Doocy to handle weather. “I was the lone weather guy on Fox News Channel,” Doocy said. “It was lonely.”
Fox & Friends began with a blank palette. “In the beginning, before we had sizable ratings, we were just trying to figure out what people were interested in learning throughout the day,” said Doocy.
Bret Baier, formerly of WRAL Raleigh, joined Fox News in 1998.
Things changed for the show, and for Fox News, after the 9/11 attacks. “The whole world changed on 9/11,” said Doocy. “We became a show about the attacks and about terror and about the war.”
Sept. 11 saw a ticker added to the Fox News screen, giving viewers the latest of the day’s many headlines.
Fox News continued to grow, with Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor emerging as a ratings beast in prime. The talent’s homespun nature won fans all over the country. Jon Glenn saw Fox News playing a growing part in “driving the national conversation” on key sociopolitical issues. “A lot of it has to do with the way anchors communicate,” he said. “They communicate as if they’re your friend and they’re telling you something.”
Every day, the new player in TV news redefined TV news. “They knew how to catch your eye, they knew how to pace things, they knew how to do graphics properly,” said Tyndall. “They know how to make television.”
Chris Wallace came on board in 2003, hosting Fox News Sunday. Martha MacCallum joined Fox News in 2004. Laura Ingraham and Ainsley Earhardt joined in 2007. Coming from KENS San Antonio, Earhardt called it “just a dream come true” for the young journalist.
Fox Business Network was launched in October 2007, taking on CNBC, where Ailes had once been president. Fox Business Morning started off the day, then the four-hour Money For Breakfast. That show saw Liz MacDonald at CNBC headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. “It’s hunting season and we hear that peacocks are in season,” she said.
After Alan Colmes left Fox News in 2008, Sean Hannity launched his own show, Hannity.
Tucker Carlson, a veteran of both CNN and MSNBC, joined Fox News in 2009.
Bret Baier took over as anchor on Special Report in 2009, succeeding Brit Hume.
Glenn Beck departed Fox News in July 2011, and the ensemble show The Five, featuring Juan Williams, Dana Perino and Geraldo Rivera, among others, was slotted in his place.
In July 2016, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes. Amidst mounting pressure, he departed Fox News that September.
Also facing sexual harassment charges, Bill O’Reilly was pushed out in April 2017. Tucker Carlson Tonight moved up an hour to 8 p.m., and daytime show The Five shifted to 9 p.m.
Ailes died in May 2017 at the age of 77. “To Democrats and liberals, he was a manipulator of the news, a puppet master who used his network to turn minor stories into blazing scandals, ostensibly in service of his personal politics,” wrote The Washington Post. “To Republicans and conservatives, he was an essential counterweight, a tough but fair partisan, a middle American from a blue-collar background who gleefully and effectively poked holes in the left-leaning biases of the news media establishment.”
Fox News has broadened its strategy to best connect with viewers and users. Streaming platform Fox Nation launched in November 2018, offering original content for $5.99 a month or $64.99 a year. “In an on-demand era of viewers watching content wherever and whenever they want, Fox Nation will complement and enhance our powerhouse Fox News programming for the loyal superfans who want to remain connected to our signature platforms,” said John Finley, senior VP of development and production, Fox News, at the time.
In April, Fox News jumped into the late-night category with Greg Gutfeld hosting Gutfeld!. Gutfeld described the late-night competition as “bland as string cheese and not nearly as appetizing.”
Fox News shows continue to draw a crowd. In the third quarter, Tucker Carlson Tonight averaged 3.2 million total viewers, and 549,000 in 25-54. Hannity got 2.9 million, and 478,000 in the demo. The Ingraham Angle averaged 2.3 million total viewers, and 400,000 in the demo. Gutfeld! did 1.7 million at 11 p.m., and 320,000 in the demo.
Beyond primetime, The Five averaged 3 million viewers in the third quarter, with 434,000 in 25-54. Fox & Friends drew 1.2 million, and 210,000 in the key demo.
Twenty-three years after the show launched, Fox & Friends continues to kick things off for the network each day. Earhardt joined the morning show in 2016. “To be able to wake up America every day is a dream,” she said. “Not too many women get to do that.”
Doocy and Kilmeade have been there from the get-go. “The first thing in the morning, people want to turn on the television and be greeted by friends,” Doocy said. “People they know, people they trust, people they enjoy watching. We’ve become friends to all these people who tune in the mornings.”
Former President Donald Trump saluted Fox News’s 25 years in the game in a video. “Twenty five-year anniversary — that’s something special,” he said.
Today, over 1,000 employees work at Fox News. It has come a long way from those early days, when Kilmeade said you could walk down an aisle in the office and see everyone who worked on your show.
“Ailes and Murdoch knew the type of people who would be a Fox News audience already existed,” Tyndall said. “They just went out and found them.”
Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.
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