When TV producer Norman Lear died, The New York Times‘ obituary said there were “critics” who insisted the date “All in the Family” premiered on CBS in January 1971 represented a “day of infamy” in American broadcasting.

By contrast, for conservative television, 30 years ago this month, Dec. 6, 1993, was a welcomed day and one well worth remembering. Now, conservatives had their own TV channel.

That’s when National Empowerment Television started broadcasting live out of studios converted from office space on 2nd Street NE in Washington, D.C. Before there was the Fox News Channel, OAN or Newsmax TV, there was NET.

Little remembered now, NET started broadcasting when Roger Ailes was president of CNBC and a couple of years before Fox News debuted under his guidance.

Newsweek called NET “the first of its kind … an unabashedly ideological TV channel.”

NET was the brainchild of Paul Weyrich, at the time president of the Free Congress Foundation, a political leader with an entrepreneurial mindset who became a familiar face to a small but politically significant segment of cable-TV viewers in the mid-1990s.

A Racine, Wisconsin, native, who held only a high school diploma, Weyrich used his background as a radio news reporter and posts as press secretary to two U.S. senators to help launch The Heritage Foundation and played important roles in helping to create other conservative organizations. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

Leadership Institute President Morton Blackwell wrote in a 2015 blog post: “If there had been no Paul Weyrich, there would, in all likelihood, have been no Heritage Foundation.”

But NET represented Weyrich’s biggest gamble, offering programming billed as “brash” and “bold.”

As early as the late 1950s, even with publications such as Human Events and National Review, many Republicans and conservatives still desired more alternatives to the traditional media’s preference for liberal and centrist viewpoints.

After the GOP’s disastrous performance in the 1958 elections, The Des Moines Register in Iowa reported on Jan. 22, 1959, that the Republican National Committee proposed sponsorship of a TV and radio program to counterbalance the “slanted” views of the “mainstream” media.

In the mid-1970s, brewing executive Joseph Coors funded Television News Inc., whose aim was to deliver an alternative to the “Big Three” networks using satellite television to relay news reports to local TV stations. Weyrich and Ailes were involved with that effort, but it failed to take off.

Then, by the 1990s, the growth of cable and satellite TV made alternatives to network news and communicating electronically with activists feasible. Weyrich, along with then-Rep. Newt Gingrich and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, realized the opportunity. Each conducted his own experiments with satellite broadcasts.

Weyrich’s experiments led to launching NET on Dec. 6, 1993, promising viewers a “C-SPAN with attitude” experience.

True to form, Weyrich insisted NET was not reflexively Republican, but rather “anti-establishment”— against Big Government, but often against Big Business and Big Labor, as well. 

“We are skeptical of all people that are in power,” he told Terry Gross on WHYY public radio’s “Fresh Air” program in 1995.

Viewers calling in, not hosts, grilled the steady stream of movers and shakers appearing on NET as Brian Jones, NET’s general manager and later president of Fox Business Network, told C-SPAN. One frequent caller was a “Walter from Ruston” in Louisiana.

People could watch Weyrich on Monday through Friday on his own “Direct Line” call-in program. Another daily mainstay was “Mitchells in the Morning,” hosted by conservative-leaning economic experts Dan and Nancy Mitchell (now Nancy Pfotenhauer).

“Youngbloods,” which The Washington Post called “the conservative answer to MTV’s ‘The Real World,’”  showcased Genevieve Wood, now with The Heritage Foundation, and Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch.

“Freedom’s Challenge” and “Worldwise,” weekly programs examining international affairs, introduced viewers to experts such as National Security Adviser-to-be John Bolton and future Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky. Political analyst Stu Rothenberg, Arianna Huffington (pre-Huffington Post), and syndicated columnist Robert Novak had their own programs.

“Ways & Means,” a monthly program initially hosted by Weyrich and Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist (later Bob Siegrist), urged NET viewers to advocate for conservative policies.

With Republican hopes rising for a takeover of Congress, NET encapsulated the conservative movement’s optimistic zeitgeist.

Indeed, Gingrich’s Progress and Freedom Foundation aired “The Progress Report” on NET.

Ultimately, Fox News Channel launched in 1996. Continued expansion of NET’s audience became more difficult, given the greater resources of Fox News. Plus, changes in the management team led to internal struggles and a name change to “America’s Voice.”

By November 1997, the experiment under the now-deceased Weyrich’s auspices came to an end. The new management’s watered-down version of NET filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2000, and although it continued for a while, its new managers left by that fall.

Weyrich’s son, Peter, recalled, “We helped show there really was an audience for conservative TV,” which represented “the seminal goal” of NET. In a 2022 email, political historian Nicole Hemmer, author of “Partisans: the Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” called NET “important, ideologically and technologically, for the rise of Fox News.”

Certainly, there were skeptics before and even after NET’s launch—and plenty of critics once NET started airing. But for nearly four years, NET was, as producer Ferman Patterson called it, “a little TV engine that could.” Working at a network broadcasting live with big ambitions—but limited resources—produced its share of obstacles and conflicts to overcome. Usually, perseverance, compromise, sacrifice and teamwork overcame them.

Weyrich was the driving force behind NET’s vision, and his unceasing energy and connections made NET possible. The hard work and dedication by the set and control-room crews, the camera operators and film editors, the directors and graphics experts ensured that vision got seen.

For at least some of us who worked at NET, the “off” button may have been pushed, but its memory remains vivid.

The Daily Signal publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of The Heritage Foundation.

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