Fox Television Network Goes on the Air Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Fox television network offered an alternative to the three existing major networks and showed that entry into the network broadcasting industry was possible, if difficult.

Summary of Event

On March 27, 1986, seven men met in Beverly Hills, California, to create a fourth television broadcast network. They planned to form a web of affiliated broadcasting stations that would reach ninety million American homes. It had been almost forty years since the last successful television network had been formed, when Leonard Goldenson Goldenson, Leonard created the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1948 out of the weaker of the two networks run by the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC). (In 1943, the Federal Communications Commission had forced NBC to divest one of the networks, creating the opportunity for the formation of ABC.) Goldenson’s network competed with NBC and the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), established by William S. Paley. Paley, William S. Fox television network Television;Fox network [kw]Fox Television Network Goes on the Air (Oct. 9, 1986) [kw]Television Network Goes on the Air, Fox (Oct. 9, 1986) [kw]Network Goes on the Air, Fox Television (Oct. 9, 1986) Fox television network Television;Fox network [g]North America;Oct. 9, 1986: Fox Television Network Goes on the Air[06180] [g]United States;Oct. 9, 1986: Fox Television Network Goes on the Air[06180] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 9, 1986: Fox Television Network Goes on the Air[06180] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 9, 1986: Fox Television Network Goes on the Air[06180] Murdoch, Rupert Diller, Barry Davis, Marvin Rivers, Joan

Rupert Murdoch served as the catalyst for the 1986 meeting in Beverly Hills. A newspaper baron from Australia, he had moved into American publishing with his purchases of the New York Post, the Boston Herald, and New York magazine. He entered the television industry by purchasing seven television stations in major American cities from Metromedia, Metromedia mortgaging his entire empire to do so. To make those stations profitable quickly, he had to force their value up dramatically.

Meanwhile, developments at the Twentieth Century-Fox Twentieth Century-Fox[Twentieth Century Fox] motion-picture studio had led to the ascent of another of the Fox network’s founders, Barry Diller. In 1981, real estate tycoon Marvin Davis purchased Twentieth Century-Fox for slightly more than $700 million. Davis had to take on a large debt to acquire the studio. Outside partners siphoned off profits, and Davis refinanced his own debt, shifting it onto the studio. Meanwhile, the studio found itself unable to turn out a hit after Star Wars (1977) and its first sequel. Davis looked to Paramount Pictures, Paramount Pictures which had recently had a string of hit films, most of them shepherded by Diller and Michael Eisner, who later would head the Disney enterprises. Diller was somewhat unhappy with his position at Paramount, and he contacted Davis to express interest in buying half of Fox. Davis offered a smaller share if Diller would run the studio, and Diller eventually agreed.

Diller still was unhappy, however, in that he did not own actual studio assets. Fox had started to make money, with hit films in 1985 such as Cocoon and Commando, but Diller wanted a more significant share of ownership. That situation changed when Murdoch bought a share of the studio. Soon thereafter, with Diller’s support, Murdoch started the process of acquiring Metromedia. Murdoch then negotiated the purchase of Davis’s remaining half of Fox. Fox, under Murdoch’s control and with Diller’s guidance, laid the groundwork for creating the fourth network.

Diller assembled the remainder of the team for Fox television: Jamie Kellner, Kellner, Jamie the president of the new network; David Johnson, Johnson, David a financial executive; Scott Sassa, Sassa, Scott who worked on promotion; and Garth Ancier Ancier, Garth and Kevin Wendle, Wendle, Kevin two rapidly rising stars from NBC. Diller and Murdoch also had worked secretly to sign on one of the biggest stars on nighttime television, comedian Joan Rivers, who was thought likely to be NBC’s pick to replace Johnny Carson when he retired from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Diller and Murdoch signed Rivers to host a late-night talk show for Fox. The young team also conducted detailed market research. Sassa questioned everything, decided the worth of a ratings point, and tried to determine lineup clearances from stations. Sassa and Johnson developed a model of a broadcasting network that would air two nights a week in prime time and direct programming toward an upscale urban audience.

Barry Diller, chairman and chief executive officer of Fox, and comedian Joan Rivers in May, 1986.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The Late Show, Late Show, The (television program) starring Joan Rivers, was Fox’s first new show, and the new network spent $400,000 a week on it. On the program’s first night, October 9, 1986, Rivers’s guests were singer and actor Cher, singers Elton John and David Lee Roth, and comedian Pee-Wee Herman. The Fox network premiered on ninety-five stations. According to Fox estimates, 85 percent of U.S. homes could receive its signal, 20 percent above what the network originally projected. Other networks disputed those figures. CBS claimed that the Fox affiliate stations were weak ultrahigh frequency (UHF) stations with limited range and that Fox actually reached only 55 percent of homes.

To be credible as a network, Fox had to offer more than a dozen new, high-quality shows every week. The established networks had forty or more years of experience and the infrastructures to produce such programs, both of which Fox lacked. By beginning with only two nights of programming a week, in prime time, Fox reduced the number of programs it had to produce. It immediately started a talent search to fill the other nights. Among the performers it tapped, many of whom provided their own production funding, were Tracey Ullman, Ullman, Tracey teen heartthrob Johnny Depp, Depp, Johnny and veteran star George C. Scott. Scott, George C. Fox also pioneered the crime-investigation series America’s Most Wanted, America’s Most Wanted (television program)[Americas Most Wanted] the hugely successful Married . . . with Children, Married . . . with Children (television program) and the teen police drama 21 Jump Street. 21 Jump Street (television program)[Twenty one Jump Street] In 1987, Fox scored a coup by broadcasting the Emmy Awards Emmy Awards show.

On July 11, 1987, with the premiere of a two-hour television movie, Werewolf, Fox was rated on the Nielsen Television Index Nielsen Television Index (NTI) in competition with the three major networks. This marked the first time that an independent had received NTI ratings instead of the lesser-valued Nielsen Station Index (NSI) ratings.

The Late Show started to sink in the ratings, and Fox eventually replaced Joan Rivers with Arsenio Hall. Hall, Arsenio America’s Most Wanted proved to be extremely successful, and it cost a minuscule $125,000 per episode to produce, less than one-third the cost of most prime-time shows. In 1989, Barry Diller announced to his affiliate stations that the Fox network had moved out of the red and finished 1988 with a profit of $400,000. On July 16, 1989, two Fox shows, America’s Most Wanted and Totally Hidden Video, Totally Hidden Video (television program) beat the programming on all three established networks to be the most watched programs in the United States.

On February 24, 1992, in a surprise move, Barry Diller resigned from Fox. Diller’s position, as a studio head who directed both television and film operations, was unique to the industry. Rupert Murdoch’s growing involvement in daily management helped ensure Diller’s departure. The film side of Twentieth Century-Fox had continued to show profits, thanks to the 1991 hit Home Alone, while the Fox television network continued to expand its programming and to aim at younger audiences.


The Fox network broke the oligopoly of the so-called Big Three Big Three (television networks) networks by constructing an affiliate-oriented broadcasting system. Fox proved that the American viewing audience would consider innovative new shows on stations other than those they had become accustomed to watching. By tapping the huge pool of independent producers and artists in Hollywood, Fox found that it could obtain high-quality talent that won critical acclaim, as in The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Ullman Show, The (television program) as well as ratings victories, as for Married . . . with Children and America’s Most Wanted.

Not only did viewers come to consider Fox a viable alternative to the established networks, but they also grew receptive to cable television Cable television networks, including Arts and Entertainment (A&E), Black Entertainment Network (BET), and USA, that primarily ran syndicated shows or reruns but also featured programming not available on mainstream television. The proliferation of videocassette recorders (VCRs) also made the industry more competitive, because viewers could watch prerecorded tapes instead of network programming.

Fox’s utilization of the UHF-band affiliate stations also revived that alternative technology. Fox appealed to younger viewers who were more inclined to change channels, and with hits such as 21 Jump Street and, in the 1990’s, Beverly Hills 90210, Fox attracted younger, teenage viewers to prime time.

Fox’s success underscored the consistent decline in viewership among the Big Three networks, which had taken significant hits from cable services such as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN), the Cable News Network (CNN), and Home Box Office (HBO). Pay-per-view, home shopping networks, and cable programming aimed at religious viewers, such as The 700 Club with Pat Robertson, steadily drained away viewers from ABC, NBC, and CBS. Fox quickly joined with other alternatives to the major networks to offer still other services. In 1989, Fox and HBO agreed to telecast three hours of HBO shows on Fox, the first time a broadcast company and cable programmer joined forces. Fox’s success blurred the lines between broadcasters and cable service operators and broke down barriers between different approaches to programming such as syndication and special events.

Critics argued that Fox’s programming appealed to the basest of tastes and the lowest common denominator among the viewing public, particularly emphasizing violence and an appeal to prurient interests. Married . . . with Children and subsequent Fox shows, such as Herman’s Head, routinely featured jokes about bodily functions, anatomical parts, and sex.

Fox’s other area of particular success was that of “realistic” or “shock” television. Cops, Cops (television program) a hit in the 1990’s, put cameras in actual police cars as officers made their rounds. It recorded live crimes and arrests, often with violence fresh for the camera. Cops soon was joined by other live-action shows covering medical emergencies and rescue attempts. Likewise, Fox’s hit America’s Most Wanted enlisted the viewing public in aiding police searches for at-large criminals. It had a powerful effect on criminals and alleged criminals unfortunate enough to be featured. Some whose pictures were shown turned themselves in immediately, telling reporters that they could no longer hide safely.

Did such shows provide the viewing public with intellectually stimulating programming? Did they promote the public interest? Responding to the latter question, Fox would say, in the case of America’s Most Wanted, certainly. Responding to the former, Fox responded, as did all the networks, that it gave the public what it demanded. Several viewer groups launched campaigns of complaint against Fox, especially singling out Married . . . with Children for their scorn, but with little noticeable effect.

Fox represented a bridge between old and new business approaches to programming, but it also remained deeply rooted in established television technologies and just as wedded as its competitors to a large-scale, top-down organizational approach. Television broadcasters still used a “master/slave” architecture by which a few large originators of programming, including Fox, fed programs into “dumb” receivers, television sets themselves. Much of that relationship arose from the expense of early vacuum tube processing of signals, which could be done inexpensively only at television stations. As George Gilder explains in Life After Television (1990), “Economic and technical constraints pushed the critical electronics out of the TV set and back into the broadcasting stations.”

The invention of the microchip in the 1950’s and fiber-optic cable in the 1970’s created alternatives to television’s top-down architecture, but the industry resisted those innovations. Microchips made possible a revolution wherein the boxes themselves could be intelligent and no longer mere receivers. The phenomenal success of personal computers offered a guide to the direction in which television would head. With the proliferation of home shopping networks in the 1980’s, it was only a matter of time before those networks were hooked into home personal computers so that orders could be typed in. Likewise, video rental outlets, which boomed in the 1980’s, did not have to look far to see ways they could tap into existing lines and allow customers to select “feeds” from films in the store as an alternative to taking videotapes home. Analysts such as Gilder have noted that in the 1980’s, fiber-optic cable carrying digital data could be carried on telephone lines to television sets or personal computers, bringing the technologies a step closer together.

In that context, Fox made no great breakthrough in joining CBS, NBC, and ABC. It offered more of the same, according to critics who contended that the entertainment industry merely reworks and updates proven, low-level formats rather than innovating with programming. Fox’s Totally Hidden Video (Candid Camera), Married . . . with Children (The Honeymooners), and Werewolf (The Fugitive) all rehashed territory covered by earlier successful programs. Fox, however, never claimed to revolutionize television, only to broaden viewers’ options. Many of its shows tested the boundaries of propriety and good taste. To that extent, it contributed to the continuing democratization and specialization of broadcast television. Fox television network Television;Fox network

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Block, Alex Ben. Outfoxed: Marvin Davis, Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, Joan Rivers, and the Inside Story of America’s Fourth Television Network. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Provides a thorough yet human look at Fox’s birth. Contains details of Joan Rivers’s hiring and firing, her husband’s suicide, the intrigues of corporate takeovers, and the strategy behind the network. The first detailed history of the network.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilder, George. Life After Television. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Provides a visionary and critical look at the coming age of interactive video, made possible in part by the proliferation of programming on networks such as Fox.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grover, Ronald. “Fox’s New Network Goes After the Baby Boomers.” BusinessWeek, April 6, 1987, 41-42. Presents a journalistic analysis of the youth orientation of the early Fox shows.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mair, George. The Barry Diller Story: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Entertainment Mogul. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. Biography focuses on Diller’s career in mass media. Chapter 8 is devoted to the beginnings of the Fox network.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sterling, Christopher H., and John Michael Kittross. Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. 3d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. Comprehensive one-volume history of radio and television in the United States. Includes discussion of the establishment of the Fox network in chapter 10.

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MTV Revolutionizes American Popular Culture

The Simpsons Debuts, Anchoring the Fledgling Fox Network

Cable Television Challenges Network Television

Viacom Announces Plans to Buy CBS

Survivor Introduces Audiences to “Reality TV”

Categories: History