The station first signed on the air on July 29, 1956 as WCKT. Originally operating as an NBC affiliate, it was founded by the Biscayne Television Corporation, a partnership between the Cox and Knight publishing families (from which the original call letters were derived), who respectively owned Miami's two major newspapers: the Miami News and Miami Herald. The same Cox/Knight partnership also owned WCKR radio (610 AM, now WIOD; and 97.3 FM, now WFLC). Niles Trammell, a former NBC president, held a 15 percent ownership interest in WCKT.
Before WCKT signed on, NBC programming had been carried on Fort Lauderdale's WFTL-TV (channel 23; later known as WGBS-TV after it had been acquired by Storer Broadcasting), which also held a secondary affiliation with the DuMont Television Network. However, WFTL struggled because television sets were not required to have UHF tuning capability (the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would later require such tuners to be included in sets manufactured from 1964 onward). It didn't help matters that much of the area—particularly Fort Lauderdale—got a fairly strong signal from WJNO-TV (channel 5, now WPTV) in West Palm Beach. When the Cox/Knight partnership won a construction permit and broadcast license to operate a station on VHF channel 7, NBC quickly agreed to move its affiliation to WCKT, since WCKR radio had been the longtime Miami affiliate of the NBC Blue Network. Until WPST-TV (channel 10, now WPLG) signed on in August 1957, WCKT also shared ABC programming with WTVJ (channel 4), as part of an arrangement with the network to provide its programming throughout the market as television sets were not required to have UHF tuning capability at the time, preventing many in the area from receiving the market's original ABC affiliate, WITV (channel 17). Channel 23 became an independent station and eventually went dark, and later came back to the air in 1967 as WAJA-TV (it is now Univision owned-and-operated station WLTV-DT).
In 1962, the Cox/Knight/Trammell partnership was stripped of its broadcast licenses due to violations of the Federal Communications Commission's licensing rules and ethics violations. In hearings that began in June 1960, it was found that some of the principals of Biscayne Television, as well as some of James Cox's personal friends, had made improper contact with FCC commissioner Richard Mack in order to influence the awarding of the construction permit and licenses. Biscayne had competed for the license with two other applicants, East Coast Television and South Florida TV. Mack had also been found guilty of taking payoffs and was forced to resign by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as the rest of the FCC commissioners.
Biscayne Television originally planned to appeal its license revocation, but was advised that the appeal would be turned down due to the gravity of the situation. Mack had also been found guilty of taking payoffs in the licensing process WPST, to the broadcasting subsidiary of National Airlines. WPST had its license revoked and Biscayne then opted to put WCKT up for sale. The owners of WPST were forced to sell the station only after they had to cease broadcasting.
Shortly afterward, a new company called Sunbeam Television Corporation bought the station for $3.4 million and assumed ownership of channel 7 on December 19, 1962. Upon the change in ownership, Sunbeam retained the WCKT call letters and claimed the Cox/Knight station's history as its own. Sunbeam was a partnership between Miami Beach-based real estate developer Sydney Ansin, and his son Edmund Ansin. The younger Ansin succeeded his father as president of Sunbeam Television in 1971. In 1966, with the establishment of the Miami Dolphins of the American Football League, the station, via NBC, which held the league's broadcast rights, became the station of record for the new team. This alliance continued until the end of the 1988 season, when most games moved over to WTVJ (today, most games are aired by WFOR). The station now airs at least two Dolphins games a season via the NFL on Fox, usually when the team plays host to an NFC team at Hard Rock Stadium. The station began using its own version of the circle 7 logo (which is moderately similar to the version originally created for ABC's owned-and-operated stations, but with the "7" not connected to the circle) in the mid-1970s. On June 7, 1983, the station's callsign was changed to the current WSVN, after those call letters were acquired from a PBS member station in Norton, Virginia.
As an NBC affiliate, WCKT/WSVN aired a local newscast in place of programs that NBC had aired at noon on weekdays. It also occasionally preempted network shows that aired during the 10 or 11 a.m. timeslot (but ran at least one of these hours) and preempted an occasional primetime program. While NBC was traditionally far less tolerant of program preemptions than the other major broadcast networks, it did not mind this at first provided that the network was able to get Miami area independent stations to air whatever programs that WSVN chose not to air. In addition, NBC programs that were not broadcast by WSVN were cleared by WPTV, whose signal provides city-grade coverage of Fort Lauderdale and was available on nearly every cable provider in the area. However, in the early 1980s, WPTV was removed from some Miami area cable systems to make room for new channels due to limited headend channel capacity. Largely due to those preemptions, WCKT/WSVN was one of NBC's weaker affiliates. Though NBC continued to arrange for independent stations to air network programs that were not shown on WSVN, the network grew increasingly annoyed at having to resort to such an arrangement in what had grown into a major market. NBC eventually decided that it needed to acquire its own station in the growing South Florida market.
NBC got its chance in the late 1980s, when Kohlberg Kravis Roberts put CBS affiliate WTVJ (then on channel 4, now on channel 6) on the market. NBC's then-corporate parent General Electric purchased that station in 1987, but WTVJ's affiliation contract with CBS was not set to expire until December 1988. CBS was willing to let WTVJ out of its contract one year early. However, Ed Ansin was not interested in letting NBC out of its affiliation agreement with WSVN, which also expired at the same time; Ansin even made an unsuccessful petition to the FCC to stop NBC's purchase of WTVJ. He wanted channel 7 to air NBC's strong fall 1988 lineup, which included the Major League Baseball World Series and the Summer Olympics.
As a result, NBC was forced to run WTVJ as a CBS affiliate for more than a year, with all of the NBC shows that were preempted by WSVN airing on WTVJ instead. This situation did not sit well with either network. Ansin made an offer to take the CBS affiliation, but CBS turned the offer down. Instead, CBS bought Miami's longtime independent station and original Fox affiliate, WCIX channel 6, even though that station had an inadequate signal in Broward County (WCIX's transmitter was located in Homestead, farther southwest than those of other Miami area stations, to avoid signal interference with WCPX-TV (now WKMG-TV) in Orlando and WPTV). In May 1988, Ed Ansin filed an antitrust lawsuit against General Electric/NBC and CBS, one week after he had claimed that CBS backed out of contract negotiations to affiliate with WSVN. With WCIX planning to switch to CBS at the start of 1989, Fox began negotiations with other area stations to carry its programming. It ultimately reached an agreement with Sunbeam Television to affiliate with channel 7.
On January 1, 1989, South Florida's first network affiliation switch occurred, with NBC moving to WTVJ full-time and WSVN taking the Fox affiliation. Channel 7 had far fewer network shows to preempt as a result, as Fox only ran primetime programming on weekends at the time and would not air an entire week's worth of programming until 1993. As a result, WSVN was for essential intents and purposes programmed as an de facto independent station (even referring to itself as such in promotions regarding the switch, despite still being affiliated with a network). Until Fox began airing programming every weeknight, WSVN aired a movie in primetime at 8:00 p.m. on nights where network programming was not scheduled to air. WSVN's affiliation with Fox could be seen as a major coup for the fledgling network, as WSVN had been a longtime NBC affiliate and Fox was pleased to affiliate with a station that had been with a "Big Three" network for years. At the time, WSVN was one of the largest heritage "Big Three" stations to join Fox. The combination of WSVN not following a similar pattern to other Fox affiliates at the time (which focused more on syndicated programming and movies, than news), and WCIX becoming a "Big Three" affiliate had also led then-struggling independent WDZL (channel 39, now CW affiliate WSFL-TV) to rise to a higher profile, as WDZL had picked up many shows that were formerly seen on WCIX (now WFOR-TV on channel 4). WSVN, meanwhile, picked up some of WCIX's movie packages, as well as a couple of cartoons that it aired on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Instead of acquiring a large amount of off-network sitcoms and cartoons, WSVN opted to pour most of its resources into its news department and took on a news-intensive format – expanding its newscasts to seven hours on weekdays – a move that was pilloried at the time since its newscasts had consistently finished well behind WTVJ and WPLG in the ratings. Because of this, the station had a higher local newscast output than the rest of Fox's stations did at the time of the switch; when WSVN became a Fox affiliate, only a small number of Fox stations ran local newscasts, which were largely limited to late primetime slots (as of 2014, about ¾ of Fox's stations have morning newscasts, but only about one-third of its owned-and-operated stations and affiliates carry newscasts in either the midday or late afternoon/early evening time periods). In addition to newscasts, WSVN began to air a lot of first-run syndicated talk shows, court shows and off-network drama series. As Fox lacked a national evening newscast (a situation which continues to this day), the station also ran a half-hour late afternoon simulcast of Headline News during the early and mid-1990s.
The station ran some cartoons on weekend mornings as well; it originally aired Fox Kids when Fox launched the block in September 1990, however it would become the first Fox station in the country to stop carrying the block in 1993; Fox Kids subsequently moved to WDZL, before moving again to WAMI (channel 69) in 1998; WBFS-TV (channel 33) aired the successor 4Kids TV block until it ended on December 27, 2008. By coincidence, when New World Communications switched most of its "Big Three"-affiliated stations to Fox between 1994 and 1996, the programming on those stations was very similar in format to WSVN, except that their news formats may have been aimed at an older audience than WSVN's; many stations owned by New World also passed on Fox Kids just as WSVN did. In the early 1990s, the station added a few off-network sitcoms to its schedule such as The Golden Girls, Designing Women and Empty Nest.
As a Fox affiliate, the station brands itself as "WSVN 7", rather than "Fox 7" under Fox's branding guidelines for its owned-and-operated stations and affiliates (Boston sister station WHDH formerly used its affiliated network's name in its branding as "7 NBC" (before becoming independent in January 2017, although NBC is not as strict with station branding as Fox is), and is one of only three Fox affiliates that omit network references entirely from their branding (alongside KHON-TV in Honolulu, Hawaii and WDRB in Louisville, Kentucky – both of which branded with Fox references earlier in their tenures as affiliates). However, Fox News Channel refers to the station as "Fox 7" when carrying WSVN's coverage of breaking news stories from South Florida; until its website was remodeled in late 2009, the Fox logo also occasionally appeared in a rolling marquee alongside the station's "circle 7" logo on the top left hand corner of the site. At the time of the 1989 switch, the network's owned-and-operated stations and certain affiliates were the only Fox stations to use full network references, while other stations – like original Miami affiliate WCIX – used limited to no references to Fox in their branding. Miami-Fort Lauderdale is one of two U.S. television markets in which the Fox affiliation had moved from one VHF station to another (the other being Honolulu, if stations not operating as satellites are counted, as Fox charter affiliate KHNL and NBC affiliate KHON-TV swapped affiliations on January 1, 1996) – and the only known instance of a longtime "Big Three" affiliate switching to Fox prior to its 1994 affiliation agreement with New World Communications and the affiliation transactions that resulted from the deal.
WSVN ended programming on its analog signal, on VHF channel 7, on June 12, 2009, the official date in which full-power television stations in the United States transitioned from analog to digital broadcasts. The station's digital signal relocated from its pre-transition VHF channel 8 to channel 7. The station was one of four that operated digital signals on the VHF band to be granted a power increase later that month after stations experienced signal problems on VHF that did not occur with the UHF band following the transition.
On January 14, 2012, WSVN and Boston sister stations WHDH and WLVI were pulled from DirecTV after negotiations with Sunbeam Television on a new carriage contract broke down due to a proposal to increase retransmission fees paid to the company by a reported 300%. In response, a Facebook page called "Boycott WSVN" was started to pressure businesses to pull their advertising from the station. However, WSVN did allow DirecTV customers to view the NFC championship game and an episode of American Idol that aired immediately after the game while negotiations were still ongoing. Sunbeam and DirecTV reached a new carriage deal on January 26, 2012, ending the blackout.
In 2016, WSVN was the target of viewer complaints and that of the National Hot Rod Association; the station pre-empts Fox NHRA in favour of infomercials, resulting in the NHRA sending a formal complaint on their Web site. The station has refused to carry the network's coverage of the NHRA, which amounts to four races during the season, including the prestigious U. S. Nationals.
The station's digital channel is multiplexed:
When WSVN became a Fox affiliate in January 1989, its programming format was quite unusual for the network's affiliates as it did not include sitcoms as part of its schedule, it ran cartoons only on weekend mornings, and aired a heavy amount of talk and court shows, some movies, and some drama series. As time went on, though, most Fox stations began relying more on talk and court shows, as well as local newscasts. Channel 7 runs only a slightly heavier amount of local news programming than other Fox stations (which have gradually increased their news outputs over the last 15 years). WSVN continues not to feature any sitcoms as part of its syndication inventory, somewhat atypical for a news-intensive Fox station.
WSVN presently broadcasts 63½ hours of locally produced newscasts each week (with 10½ hours on weekdays, 6 hours on Saturdays and 5 hours on Sundays); in regards to the number of hours devoted to news programming, it is the highest local newscast output of any local television station in Florida and the fifth highest in the United States (in contrast, Detroit Fox O&O WJBK airs 66 hours; fellow affiliate WXIN in Indianapolis carries 65½ hours; WJW in Cleveland carries 68 hours and WTVT in Tampa Bay carries 67 hours). Unlike other news-intensive Fox stations, WSVN carries newscasts at 5:00, 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. on both Saturdays and Sundays (others either air early evening newscasts on weekends at different times on Saturdays and Sundays [i.e., Saturdays at 6:00 and Sundays at 5:00 p.m.], air them either at only 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. on both nights or do not carry newscasts in that particular weekend time period at all); however, WSVN's weekend 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. newscasts are subject to preemption and/or delay due to network sports telecasts running into the timeslot. In addition, the station produces the entertainment news/lifestyle program Deco Drive (which airs at 7:30 p.m. weeknights). The station's Doppler weather radar system is branded as "Storm Tracker 7". The station is affiliated with CNN for news.
When the station gained the Fox affiliation on January 1, 1989, it retained a news schedule similar to the one it had as an NBC affiliate; in its early years with Fox, local news programming on the station ran on weekdays from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m., 12:00 to 1:00 p.m., 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., weekends from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. and nightly from 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. The station became the second Fox affiliate to have a weekday morning newscast as a result and was the first one with weeknight 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. newscasts. On the date of the network switch, WSVN debuted a locally produced early evening news magazine program, Inside Story; the program eventually evolved into its present entertainment-based format as 7:30 (in reference to its timeslot) in 1994, and later changed its title to the current Deco Drive in 1996.
Under news director Joel Cheatwood, WSVN became well known in South Florida, and throughout the nation, for its emphasis on crime stories and sensationalistic reporting – summarized in the phrase, "if it bleeds, it leads." Although this embrace of tabloid television was criticized, it rejuvenated a station that had languished in third place for most of its tenure with NBC. Within a few years, with anchor Rick Sanchez at the helm, WSVN became the market's highest-rated English-language station from sign-on to sign-off, a rank it would hold for the better part of two decades until it was overtaken for the title by WFOR, though WSVN has been a solid runner-up and has tied for second with WPLG.
WSVN's success also influenced how newscasts on other Fox affiliates would look in later years; the station's decision to take on a news-intensive schedule would eventually serve as the template for the programming formats of the former "Big Three" stations that switched to Fox as a result of its 1994 affiliation agreement with New World Communications and certain transactions related to the deal, and was gradually adopted by many heritage Fox stations and certain news-producing stations that are not affiliated with the network, NBC, CBS or ABC. It was also the first station to take a cue from CNN, integrating its newsroom and studio into one large area, which the station has termed the "newsplex". It evolved out of their initial two sets around the time of the network switch in the late 1980s: one used for its morning and 5:00 p.m. newscasts, which was a small, enclosed area in the newsroom, and its main set, which was positioned in the station's control room. Other stations and networks, both in the U.S. and internationally, have taken cues from WSVN's set. The overall format was successful enough in Miami that in 1993, Ed Ansin assigned Cheatwood to overhaul Sunbeam's newly acquired Boston station WHDH, incorporating a considerably watered-down version of the WSVN format for its newscasts; as in Miami, the tabloid style helped WHDH rise from a perennial third place into a contender for first in the news ratings (against the more traditional WCVB-TV). WHDH uses many visual cues taken from WSVN including the use of flashy graphics, distinct music packages composed by Chris Crane (who has composed the various custom news themes used by WSVN since 1991) and a similarly designed "newsplex" set; WSVN's "circle 7" logo was also adopted by WHDH after Sunbeam assumed ownership.
The station's 11:00 p.m. newscast evolved into an hour-long 10:00 p.m. program after it joined Fox, but was revived in 1995 as a 15-minute wrap-up of the proceedings in the O.J. Simpson murder case, and expanded to a half-hour the following year; the 11:00 p.m. newscast expanded to weekend evenings on September 26, 2009. The station debuted a half-hour 4:00 p.m. newscast on September 11, 2006, which later expanded to one hour in 2007. On January 11, 2009, starting with its 5:00 p.m. newscast, WSVN became the second station in the Miami market (behind WTVJ) to begin broadcasting its local newscasts in high definition. With the switch to HD, came an updated newsplex set that premiered two weeks earlier on December 29, 2008 and new HD graphics. On July 11, 2010, WSVN expanded its Saturday and Sunday 6:00 p.m. newscasts to one hour with the addition of half-hour newscasts at 6:30 p.m. On August 22, 2011, WSVN added a fifth hour (from 9:00–10:00 a.m.) to the weekday edition of Today in Florida, by way of the move of Live! with Regis and Kelly to WPLG. On Sunday, September 13, 2015, the station expanded its Today in Florida newscast to Sunday mornings airing from 8:00–11:00 a.m. The latest addition now brings the total newscast output to 64 1/2 hours per week.