As argued here previously, the night isn’t long enough for Fox News. The cable-news ratings leader has too many top talents to cram into prime time, no matter how you define this television term of art: Daytime host Megyn Kelly will be moving to one of the evening hours once her maternity leave is finished, and the network has its other standbys — Bill O’Reilly, Bret Baier, Shepard Smith, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren — locked down on long-term contracts.
A solution is now emerging, via a press release issued by Fox News today. Shepard Smith, the dapper anchor who greets viewers in his 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. shows, will be vacating the latter spot. Fox News’ press release treats the matter more elliptically. The 7 p.m. show, it says, will be “incorporated into a breaking news unit where Smith will dedicate his anchoring, reporting and presentation acumen as domestic and international events unfold.”
More press releasisms: “The show will be housed in a newly constructed signature studio unveiled upon launch, known as The FOX News Deck. The Deck and Smith’s dedicated team of producers and information specialists will also be able to interrupt all programming as needed at a moment’s notice to bring viewers the latest news as it develops. The newly created command center concept fuses incoming real-time news feeds, digital media newsgathering and social media utilizing advanced, state-of-the-art technology.”
Everyone says that. It’s hilarious, though, that Fox News is invoking advanced-tech mumbo-jumbo. As former Fox News mole Joe Muto recounted in his book “An Atheist in the Fox Hole: A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media,” the network for the longest time resisted going digital with its internal systems. As a grunt worker in the mid-2000s, Muto describes using “hulking VCR” machines to find needed clips, then running to an edit room to cut the tape, then running around some more. “Of course none of that needed to happen. There was no reason why Fox, which, by the time I joined, had been in business for nearly a decade and had been number one in the ratings for more than two years, should still have been running such a rinky-dink operation, with broken-down tape machines, control rooms that smelled like a sewer whenever it rained more than half an inch, chronic intentional understaffing, and a workforce composed of barely trained, underpaid children like myself. But that was the business model.” The network, Muto tells the Erik Wemple Blog, eventually upgraded its systems.
Though Fox News’ lingo sounds impressive, says Muto, “it’s basically meaningless. I guarantee you that their ‘advanced, state-of-the-art technology’ is going to be an intern with an iPad hitting ‘refresh’ on the Twitter app every few seconds. If, on the off chance they actually DID put in some sort of new system, they probably skimped on the installation and won’t bother to train anyone to properly use it in the first place. It will break down twice a week, and they’ll end up abandoning the system entirely in about three months.” That said, Muto commends Smith’s own technology skills and insists that if anyone can pull this off, it is he.
For the record, Smith tells Mediaite in an interview that the network has “crazy new technology installed in the ‘Fox News Deck’ to allow us to evaluate all our digital properties. We’ll be able to vet information for our audience at a speed unseen before.” Part of the scheme revolves around “parallel control rooms,” a setup wherein program producers can work on their segments, while Smith’s team fusses over breaking news. “When your show has to be interrupted by breaking news, I’ll do it for them. The wall between programming and breaking news gets higher. Instead of an existing show’s team worrying about news-gathering, my team will cut in and take care of the breaking news — the other show can then plan their analysis,” Smith told the site.
As brilliant in theory as it is disastrous in execution. Let’s suppose you’re Megyn Kelly or Jon Scott or Neil Cavuto: A big story breaks while your program is on air. Do you really want to cede your pulpit to Smith? Or even to his team? Isn’t breaking news the sort of moment for which anchors live? Could Fox News have hatched a more ingenious plan for sowing discord among its talent?
Fox News’ tech upgrades and social-media hype are not likely a demand-driven initiative, considering the gray tint of its audience.
Like all good cable-news networks, Fox News plays keep-away with news about itself. Though we learn today that Smith won’t be on air at 7 p.m., we don’t know who will be. In one of the summer’s most consequential stories, media critics have speculated about how Fox News will reshuffle its prime-time lineup to accommodate Kelly, who will supposedly occupy the 9 p.m. slot during which Hannity now shouts at people. Could he be moving to 7 p.m.?
Whatever the case, Smith’s disappearance from the early-evening slot will in all likelihood mean a more rightward tilt for Fox News. It’s a matter of physics: Smith occasionally flashes signs of centrism — even liberalism — on air, in a way that distinguishes him from many of his co-workers in the network’s fraudulent Fair and Balanced Brigade. Wrote Howard Kurtz in 2011: “[Fox News chief Roger] Ailes keeps a wary eye on anchor Shepard Smith, who occasionally backs aspects of the Obama record: ‘Every once in a while Shep Smith gets out there where the buses don’t run and we have a friendly talk.’ “