What is Fox News without Roger Ailes? A question once only whispered in the cable news giant’s headquarters on Sixth Avenue in New York has grown to be the pressing query in media circles. The man who created the Fox News brand in 1996, and aggressively built his network into the No. 1 cable news outlet and the voice of the conservative political movement, fell from his throne in a matter of days.
Ailes’ reign was upended on July 6, when Fox News host Gretchen Carlson sued the Fox News chairman and CEO for sexual harassment, accusing him of ignoring her complaints of harassment on the set of the network’s top-rated morning show, Fox & Friends, and also propositioning the star himself. Reports later surfaced that Fox News star Megyn Kelly endured similar treatment by Ailes earlier in her career (and according to Carlson’s lawyers more than 20 additional women came forward alleging they too had been harassed over the years).
Ailes had dismissed Carlson’s accusations as “false” and “defamatory.” But by last Thursday afternoon, just hours before Donald Trump addressed the Republican National Convention, Ailes stepped down. “Having spent 20 years building this historic business, I will not allow my presence to become a distraction from the work that must be done every day to ensure that Fox News and Fox Business continue to lead our industry,” Ailes said in a letter to 21st Century Fox executive chairman Rupert Murdoch that was obtained by The Drudge Report.
Murdoch immediately took over as Fox News chairman and acting chief executive. “Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country,” Murdoch said in a statement. “Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years.”
Murdoch said for the immediate future, he would run Fox News with “the support of our existing management team under [Fox News senior evp, programming] Bill Shine, [evp of news and editorial] Jay Wallace and [CFO] Mark Kranz.”
The Ailes scandal hit Fox News—apparently without warning—on the eve of the RNC, expected to be another highly rated event in an election cycle that already saw Fox set a cable news ratings record for its hosting of the first Republican primary debate, which served as Donald Trump’s debut.
With the Democratic convention up next, the general election about to swing into high gear, and the Olympics, terrorism and political strife in the U.S. all facing the news industry, the uncertainty of a new leader at Fox News comes at a particularly perilous moment.
Ailes, 76, led Fox News for 20 years, handpicking and cultivating its stars, and fiercely protecting some who faced their own scandals. Personal loyalty, ratings dominance and Ailes’ leadership all seem to be written into the Fox News DNA. “Of all major broadcast news media, one perceives Fox to be more ‘family’ than most,” said Terence Clarke, a consultant who helped manage Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol tampering crisis in 1982. And Ailes, of course, like no other news executive, is the patriarch.
The Financial Times reported some of the network’s biggest names, including Bill O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren and Sean Hannity, had clauses in their contracts that would allow them to leave the network should Ailes ever be gone. Van Susteren declined to comment on her contract, while O’Reilly said last month that he’s not sure how much longer he wants to keep his TV show. “I don’t want to work this hard much longer. I know that,” he told Adweek.
To say much is at stake is an understatement. Fox News, which saw its overall viewership rise 7 percent in 2015 to an average of 1.9 million, was projected by Pew Research to grow its revenue by 14 percent, to $2.3 billion, with profits of $1.5 billion on advertising revenue of $844 million. Competitors will be watching with keen interest to see if Fox can keep it that way without Ailes—while ensuring stability in the network’s top-rated talent lineup.
“This represents a threat to the brand’s image, no doubt about it,” said Paul Friederichsen, a marketing consultant and founder of Atlanta-based BrandBiz, who has written about the Fox News brand. “What makes this so acute is that it runs completely counter to the clean, wholesome, mom, flag and apple pie brand image.”
Or does it? One longtime cable news host who has for years competed directly with Fox News and Ailes agreed to speak with Adweek only on the condition of anonymity. “[Ailes’] overt objectification of women seems to account for some of the network’s success,” the cable news vet said. “The Murdochs will have a struggle separating the sexism from an otherwise winning formula.”
While Murdoch is stepping in temporarily, Fox News will need to find a long-term leader who can build on Ailes’ success but also address any internal tension that may have been created by his “boys’ club” culture. Cable news insiders said a successful transition would likely produce no visible changes to the on-air product: same hosts, same schedule, same rotation of readers. But off camera, the insiders expected a bumpier road, with the results of an internal investigation into the allegations against Ailes potentially forcing changes in a firmly rooted corporate culture cultivated over two decades by Ailes himself.
In a series of off-the-record conversations with cable news veterans, all expected Fox to replace Ailes with a Fox News insider. One network news correspondent at another network, who has friends at Fox News, described them as saying a power struggle inside the network is already underway, though the network’s fiercely loyal viewership, they believe, will mean continued ratings success—and allow those not vying for control of the network to weather the storm.
Outsiders haven’t always succeeded—especially in management—at Fox News. Earlier this year, Michael Clemente, the network’s executive vice president for news who previously spent 27 years at ABC News, was shifted to run a new long-form programming division, a move that seemed to take him out of the line of succession for Ailes’ job.
Shine, Fox News senior evp who oversees programming for Fox News and Fox Business Network, could easily take over. But one insider wondered if the Murdochs might look to a dark horse internal candidate like Dianne Brandi, a former evp at Fox News now serving as vp of business and legal affairs at Fox News. Elevating Brandi, whose Fox career, like Ailes, dates to 1996, could be a two-birds-with-one-stone solution: bringing familiarity and continuity while also sending a message the new boss won’t be running a boys’ club. Other names publicly floated include Fox News’ Wallace and CBS News president David Rhodes, who began his career as a production assistant at Fox News.
Bringing in even the most experienced of outsiders is risky, said Friederichsen, noting the time-honored tradition of newcomers tinkering and putting their stamp on things. “The success of Fox News is based squarely on its affinity with a conservative news demo,” he said. “Tamper with the formula, and you’re likely to risk it all.”
Ailes, who will serve as a 21st Century Fox adviser, will have to decide whether his post-Fox News plans involve retirement or perhaps mounting a rival to his former network.
When asked by Adweek last November what else he hoped to accomplish, he said, “I don’t feel any different in my brain than when I was 30 years old. I have the same sort of reaction to new ideas and new things as I did then. I realize I look bad, but I don’t feel bad. I’m constantly trying to invent different ways to do things. If you’re going to be a television executive, you have to change with the times.”
This story first appeared in the July 25, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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