All the News that Fits

Fox battles Time Warner for a parking place on Manhattan cable

By Carl Swanson

Published October 18, 1996 10:29AM (EDT)

When you're Rupert "Repeat" Murdoch, you're unaccustomed to taking no
for an answer. So when the local Manhattan cable provider said it was
"channel locked" and couldn't accommodate his $165 million Fox News
Channel just yet, he went above its head. On October 2, the global media
visigoth showed up in New York for the channel's launch party and
decided to call in a few political favors to try to shoehorn it onto the
city's cable dial. That night, he cornered the city's control-freak
Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who could use a peppy TV Pravda
anointing his every action, even his very stupid and transparently
political ones, and apparently convinced him to do something very stupid
and transparent: use the Oct. 9 "review" of the cable company's franchise
agreement with the city to force it to violate federal cable regulations
and put FNC on in place of one of the commercial-free city public access

Since the local cable company is owned by Time Warner, which is about to
subsume CNN as part of its merger with Turner Broadcasting and is one of
the few media conglomerates bigger than Murdoch's, it ended up being a loud
and embarrassingly public slapfest among the ranks of what Vanity Fair
insists on calling the New Establishment. (It's not the first time that Time Warner has been accused of keeping a
competitor to an in-house channel off the air: the Classic Sports Network
has accused the company of keeping it off cable to protect a CNN-Sports
Illustrated project in development.)

Newspaper ads had announced that FNC would be home to "information without
opinion" and "news without bias" despite being run by former Republican
strategist Roger Ailes for a man best known for owning shrill and
error-prone right-wing tabloids. (According to the Village Voice,
prospective FNC employees were asked about their party affiliation.) A
reporter for the Murdoch-owned New York Post trotted downstairs from the
paper's offices to the ground floor studios of FNC (which began the year as
a Sam Goody record store) to file a synergistically breathless account
Oct. 3 of how Oscar de la Renta, Walter Cronkite and the state's Republican
governor, George Pataki, had hailed the start-up over cocktails, adding
plaintively that, "come Monday, passersby will be able to watch Fox News
Channel in action through the windows (of the) street level studios at 48th
Street" and Sixth Avenue. The FNC studios sit along a stretch of sterile
high rises that is home to America's respectable media behemoths: NBC,
McGraw-Hill, Time Warner, Simon & Schuster, CBS. FNC was going to help
cement Murdoch's position among them.

All week, Ailes kept repeating that Time Warner went back on a "verbal
agreement" to carry the news service, choosing instead to run the tepid
MSNBC, the putatively interactive 24-hour news channel that NBC and Microsoft
teamed up on to replace NBC's failed America's Talking channel (which, to
make this a total media clusterfuck, Ailes ran; Ailes also consulted for
Giuliani and advised Pataki).

Time Warner said it had a 30-channel waiting list and it didn't have any
room for FNC, no matter who its friends were. And Murdoch has many. He'd
negotiated a $20 million city subsidy from Giuliani to set up shop in
Manhattan, and his New York Post is, even in its four daily gossip columns,
rabidly pro-Giuliani. Giuliani's wife even works as a correspondent for Fox
5, Murdoch's local station. (Murdoch got an exemption from FCC regulations,
which prohibit owning both a TV station and a newspaper in the same

Murdoch has enemies, too, among them loopy CNN founder Ted Turner, the man about
to trade ownership of Turner Broadcasting for the vice-chairmanship of the
world's largest media corporation. Turner, who recently compared Murdoch to
Hitler, is said to have personally nixed the FNC deal from his ranch in
Montana over Labor Day weekend. Ailes told the city franchise committee
that "New York City now has a cable-system czar — Turner — who can
control access and tell New Yorkers what they can and cannot see," and
called it example of a "personal vendetta" Turner has against Murdoch.
(Murdoch's HarperCollins publishing house is reportedly trying to find a
writer for a hatchet job biography of Turner.)

Giuliani's concerns were alternately to "preserve jobs in the city" (FNC
has a staff of 600) and protect free speech: "I do find it curious that in
the name of the First Amendment, someone would go into court to restrain
someone from speaking." He apparently found it shocking that anyone would
accuse him of political subterfuge. "You think every time I make a decision
that that's what I think about? I don't," he proclaimed. But Ailes and
Giuliani are always on rhetorical hyperdrive; what was interesting was
watching the gray-suited executives of Time Warner get impudent in public.
The company's president, Richard Parsons, called the mayor "either a bully
or a vigilante." Another executive called it "a pretty outrageous power

The day after the Fox News launch party, a Giuliani aide reportedly approached Time
Warner with a deal to get FNC on the air by moving one of the more or less
educational commercial channels, like Discovery, onto one of the five
city-run public access slots which broadcast noncommercial cultural
programming, job listings and other unwatchable stuff. This would free
space for FNC. According to court papers, a city attorney "stated that the
parties could 'paper the deal' to make it appear as if there were no quid
pro quo.'" Time Warner turned the offer down as illegal, setting the
carnival in motion: Giuliani and Pataki assailing Time Warner; the state's
Republican Attorney General starting an antitrust probe into possible
"monopolistic practices" by the company; FNC suing Time Warner for
"conspiring" to keep it off the air; Giuliani threatening to hold the
city's power to regulate cable franchises over Time Warner; and, finally,
the city saying it would simply begin broadcasting FNC, without
commercials, over one of the city channels. It never did, because last
Friday a federal judge said that would violate federal law. The mayor
quickly labeled the judgment "confused."

Cable companies wiring 17 million TVs
have agreed to carry FNC, though some of them haven't cleared room for it
yet. If yours is not one of them, then the next time you're in New York,
stop by the cheery color monitors set in the display windows of Fox News
Channel headquarters at 1211 Sixth Avenue. They'll leave the light on for

Carl Swanson

Carl Swanson writes regularly for the New York Observer.

MORE FROM Carl Swanson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------