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Murdochs Ponder Fox News Without Ailes

Related: 21st Century Fox Says Ailes Still At Work

There aren’t many media brands closely associated with a lone visionary. Playboy and Hef comes to mind, as does Martha Stewart and her Omnimedia entities.

Fox News Channel and Roger Ailes falls into that slim category, but parent 21st Century Fox is now contemplating what life at Fox News Channel (FNC) looks like without Ailes steering the ship. Launching in 1996 as a counterweight to mainstream news, FNC was built on highly visible hosts injecting their voluble viewpoints into the news bloodstream, with Ailes, a former Republican strategist, calling the shots.  

“Fox News Channel is Roger Ailes,” says Andrew Tyndall, editor of news analysis outfit Tyndall Report. “But it’s not just his concept of what the channel looks like—he’s the glue that holds all those personalities together.”

The formula has worked exceedingly well. Brian Wieser, senior research analyst at Pivotal Research Group, calls FNC a “ratings juggernaut” that dwarfed CNN in viewer time consumption by 2.2 times last year, and a “highly profitable entity that accounts for a large share of its parent company’s value.” Fox News and junior sibling Fox Business generate $900 million in yearly revenue, says Wieser, citing SNL Kagan.

Ailes, who got his start in television producing for The Mike Douglas Show, has engendered uncommon loyalty among his talent ranks. Tyndall notes the “absolutely incredible” stability among FNC hosts, with Glenn Beck one of the very few big names to bolt over the years.

Ailes is the focus of a sexual harassment lawsuit from former daytime host Gretchen Carlson. An investigation by law firm Paul, Weiss, turned up similar accounts from other employees, none more damaging than that from star anchor Megyn Kelly, who told investigators, according to New York Magazine, that Ailes made “unwanted sexual advances” toward her about ten years ago when she was a legal correspondent at Fox’s Washington bureau. Through a spokesperson, Ailes denied the claim.

Ailes is said to be negotiating his departure terms with Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan. (James is chief executive while Rupert and Lachlan are co-executive chairmen.) New York Magazine reports that he has until Aug. 1 to leave, or face being fired for cause.

The timing of the Ailes imbroglio is a nightmare for FNC, with the Republican National Convention happening in Cleveland, the Democrats taking their turn July 25-28, and the presidential election in 3 1/2 months. It is gulping much of the news oxygen that would otherwise be taken up by Donald Trump. Says one news veteran from the convention front lines: “The three questions you get here are, how are you, where are you staying, and what are you hearing about Fox News?”

Ailes is a blustery and contrarian figure with a biting sense of humor and a willing outlier in the chummy fraternity of media titans. Upon his induction in the B&C Hall of Fame in 2008, he surveyed the room and cited solidarity with the lone conservative panelist on ABC's The View. "So this is how Elisabeth Hasselbeck feels,” he quipped.

Ailes and Rupert Murdoch enjoy a tight bond, but Ailes has clashed with the younger Murdochs in the past. When 21st Century Fox revealed its leadership succession plan last year, with the Murdoch brothers increasing their role, Ailes chafed at the notion of reporting to Rupert’s sons.

21st Century Fox insisted reports of Ailes’ dismissal are premature. The company said in a statement: "Roger is at work. The review is ongoing. And the only agreement that is in place is his existing employment agreement." 

Presuming Ailes’ departure happens in short order, James and Lachlan will have one less source of stress in their day to day management. But they’ll have new headaches in keeping FNC strong during a crucial time in any news network’s calendar and mollifying Ailes’ loyalists.

Breitbart News reported that “all” of Fox News’ primetime lineup, including Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren, is “willing to walk out of the network” in solidarity with Ailes if he is forced to leave, though a Fox source told New York Mag the story is untrue. 

FNC anchor options may be limited. According to Wieser’s report, “It seems unlikely that talent would leave for CNN or MSNBC. Other conservative-focused news networks are unlikely to emerge with enough scale to afford these individuals.” A steady host lineup, Wieser adds, will keep audiences tuning in despite the management shakeup.

There is no obvious successor to Ailes. The Wall Street Journal mentioned Jay Wallace, head of news programming at FNC; Bill Shine, who oversees FNC non-news and opinion content; and Michael Clemente, executive VP of news specials at FNC, as possible applicants. CBS News president David Rhodes may turn up in the rumor mill too, with his turnaround work at CBS, and a previous stint as VP of news at FNC.

Tyndall says time will tell how the power move works out for the Murdochs and for 21st Century Fox.

“It’s a victory but is it a Pyrrhic victory?” says Tyndall. “Maybe they’ve destroyed the cash cow to get control of Fox News.”