Six Months That Changed TV & PR

There’s something about the end of the year that makes you want to look back, sometimes way back.

Partially because of the death of John Madden, whose remarkable broadcasting career will look even more significant over time, and partially because of my holiday watching of the HBO show “Succession,” fiction based, at least in part, on the Murdoch family empire – I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened between December 1993 and May 1994 and how it still resonates today for all of us working in any business touched by media.

It started between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1993 when Fox shocked the broadcast world and won the rights to broadcast the National Football League, primarily the NFC. You have to really put yourself back in the media landscape of 30 years ago to understand the significance of this event and this oral history piece really helps do that, along with the importance of John Madden as a part of it. But what happened six months later was maybe just as important.

I remember where I was when I heard the news in May 1994. With a new college diploma at home and some experience on my resume, I was on my way to the post office to mail packages to TV stations with posted job openings when I heard on the radio that the business of local TV had changed forever. Fox had invested in TV stations around the country, meaning they would convert to Fox affiliation. This included major markets, including those with NFC pro football teams, including Detroit, Atlanta, Tampa and Milwaukee. This were VHF (low number) stations. That shouldn’t have meant much then, as cable had proliferated, but it did, as, somehow, it still does now in many markets. This meant an expansion of the local TV news business. It’s no coincidence my job prospects brightened immediately and I was working full-time within a month.

Shortly after, Fox mandated that all of its affiliates start doing news. Because of their network schedule, that meant 10:00 (Eastern Time) and morning newscasts. Soon after that, Fox bought outright the stations they invested in back in May. This meant more options for viewers, more local jobs for professionals and, as I learned several years later, more opportunities for more PR-generated stories to get on the air, particularly in the morning as Fox affiliates (especially those that were company owned), began to rule ratings with multi-hour morning news shows.

All of this momentum led to the 1996 launch of the Fox News Channel and if you’re reading this, you already know what kind of impact that had. Without the NFL deal that led to the increase in the local footprint, it’s very hard to see how Fox News could have had legs to stand on, as it did.

Predictions in this business are dangerous, so I’ll only say that 2022 election revenue should mean relative stability for local TV news this coming year. Beyond that, it’s going to take innovation to sustain business success (there are smart people working on that, I hear). In hindsight, though, it’s not a stretch to think that the medium would not have sustained its prowess from the ’70s and ’80s into the 2020s without those six months in 1993-1994.