Fox News looks back on 20 years

Fox News looks back on 20 years

Fox News turns 20 years old today.

While the network has grown into a smashing success, it faced stiff odds when it launched on Oct. 7, 1996.

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CNN had a 16-year head start, and MSNBC had about a three-month head start after launching in July of that year.

The network initially couldn't get on in the nation's biggest market, New York City. Most of New York's cable market was owned by Time Warner City Cable, which had just merged with Turner, the owner of CNN.  

Some speculated that Fox wouldn't be able to survive, given CNN's dominance and the resources that MSNBC would have at its disposal. But eventually Fox News did make it on in New York and slowly built an audience from there. 

By the end of 2000, Fox News was almost even with CNN. The network expanded rapidly and offered up commentary programs in prime-time ("The O'Reilly Factor," "Hannity & Colmes" and "The Edge with Paula Zahn") that offered a lively alternative to CNN, which was still delivering straight news in the evening hours. 

Bill Hemmer, who has been with Fox News as a mid-morning news anchor on "America's Newsroom" since 2005, was also once an Emmy-winning anchor at CNN from 1995 to 2005. 

"I think what Fox was doing then [in the 90s] — I don't want to say experimental — I think they were trying to figure out what the audience would watch," Hemmer said in an interview with The Hill. "And I remember distinctively being in Atlanta, and the newsroom there had an open back, meaning there was no wall behind the news desk and it opened up into the newsroom, which was much more prominent for CNN then than it is now."  

"One of our [CNN] producers was laughing out loud, and it was quite easy to hear, and I said, 'Bob, what's so funny over there?" Hemmer said.

“‘Oh, you got to watch this show on Fox News, they're so funny,'" Hemmer recalled. "I remember that moment because they were doing something I'm certain CNN would never have considered."

"Wow, if they're getting people like Bob to watch, maybe that's something we need to pay attention to," Hemmer recalled thinking. 

Hemmer also remembers the first time he encountered a new element at the time that is common now: Cable news celebrity culture. 

"I remember the [2000 election] recount down in Tallahassee, being down there for 37 days," says Hemmer. "And one night they were getting ready to certify the vote."

"We're in this courtyard in the capital in Tallahassee, and it's 7 o'clock, 8 o'clock at night, and there's this screaming going on across the courtyard, and one of our folks went over there to check it out," Hemmer said. "And one of our producers says: 'They're Fox News fans, they're behind the camera, they're screaming for Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Shepard Smith,'" he says. 

"And I thought, 'We finally have competition.'"

Fox would officially overtake CNN on a consistent basis in early 2002 and has stayed on top since then.

In 2016, the network is enjoying one of its best rating years ever by not only beating CNN and MSNBC, but even topping ESPN and USA Network in some months, a once-unthinkable achievement.

But 2016 will also be remembered for the shocking and relatively sudden departure of former Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes due to a sexual harassment suit leveled against him by former host Gretchen Carlson. Ailes, 76, left the company after an internal investigation via the law firm Paul, Weiss initiated by 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch revealed that Carlson's allegations of harassment were shared by other women working at the company. Murdoch also serves as the executive chairman of Fox News and Fox Business. 

"I was proud to work for Roger," says Hemmer. "And I'm honored to work for Rupert Murdoch."

“When you think about media decisions over the last 30 years, [Murdoch] has been a part of that," Hemmer explains. "The Wall Street Journal, online publications, newspapers, negotiations with the NFL and Major League Baseball [via Fox Sports], you name it. 

"Fox News, Fox Business. He's had a hand in major media decisions over the past 30 years."

Hemmer says the changing of the guard from Ailes to new co-presidents Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy has barely been noticed due to the seemingly non-stop hours of covering a long and decidedly unpredictable presidential campaign. 

"We've been on this election story and everything else that's happening, and we've been so busy," says Hemmer. "You go back to the first [GOP primary] debate in August 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio, and to me, it hasn't stopped.  

"So I think in that respect in the pace in which we move, and the amount of work we need to get done every day, I think we've maintained the pace to keep us No. 1, and I'm very proud to say that."  

Despite the loss of Ailes, the network’s on-air talent has remained remarkable steady. 

Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto, Brian Kilmeade, Steve Doocy and Shepard Smith hosted programs in 1996 and still do today. Alan Colmes, Trace Gallagher, Jon Scott, Jim Angle, Carl Cameron, Wendell Goler, Lauren Green, Eric Shawn and Uma Pemmaraju also have been with the network since its inception.

When Fox celebrates its 40th anniversary, will Hemmer still be around at age 71?  

"I hope they'll take me," he jokes.