Fox News Channel now must soldier on without Roger Ailes—not just its architect, but the bombastic embodiment of the channel itself. A gifted television producer, Ailes is credited for turning relatively obscure TV personalities into star hosts, and has built up considerable goodwill among talent—most of them, at least—across the two decades of Fox News Channel (FNC).
While some predict a host parade following Ailes out the door, veteran TV news managers say there’s not a lot of upside for the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and others outside of 1211 Avenue of the Americas. “I’d be surprised if the big stars decamped,” said Andrew Heyward, former CBS News president. “[Fox News Channel] is a great platform for them. They’re well compensated and have a ton of influence. Where else would Bill O’Reilly get this kind of exposure?”
Some top-tier talent have “key man clauses” in their contracts, which gives them flexibility with Ailes gone. More likely than an exodus, said one talent agent, is renegotiating for more money and autonomy. “That’s all they really care about,” said the rep.
The timing of Roger Ailes’ end game, coming in the middle of the Republican National Convention, was a nightmare for Fox News. Instead of simply covering the news from Cleveland, Fox News had become the news. Said one veteran reporter 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?”
Yet Donald Trump’s Quicken Loans Arena coronation, and all the GOP activity surrounding it, at least gave shaken staffers something to focus on while Ailes was negotiating his exit with the Murdochs. Mounting political coverage through early November will further keep them focused. “They have a big story to sink their teeth into,” said a former news chief. “There’s a lot of emotional turmoil, but maybe they’re too busy to indulge in it.”
The news veteran describes Ailes as a “cult of personality” at Fox News, who built the network in his image, and managed airtime to the minute. “He works very hard on a micro level,” said Andrew Tyndall, editor of the news analysis publication Tyndall Report.
But supreme rulers make for tricky succession plans. “The downside of building something so close to an individual is, it’s hard to sustain it when they’re gone,” said the news vet.
Several names have been kicked around to succeed Ailes. Some believe none of the internal execs quite fit the bill; one talent insider said Jeff Zucker, CNN Worldwide president, will get a good look, while James and Lachlan Murdoch may well ship in an executive from Sky News. With Britons running news at ABC and NBC, they’re trendy choices Stateside. The new leader must bring fresh ideas on the digital side, win the trust of skeptical talent, offer a strategy to bring down the median viewer age, and of course work well with the Murdochs.
To be sure, most FNC viewers would not know Roger Ailes if they sat next to him on an airplane; it’s Megyn Kelly and O’Reilly and Shepard Smith they tune in for. Fox News Channel won’t look different to them in the wake of Ailes’ departure, thought that may change as time goes on. “The skirts may get longer and the hair less blonde,” said the agent. “But I don’t think Fox News Channel changes dramatically.”
FNC is a ratings colossus, and a huge source of cash, and pride, for 21st Century Fox. The channel could run on its own for a spell, but will need strong leadership to stay on top in the cutthroat cable news wars.
“I don’t think anything chugs along apace,” said Heyward. “The status quo is not a strategy.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.