To judge from some recent press clippings, Fox News chief Roger Ailes has been slipping, his hold upon the nearly 19-year-old media powerhouse Fox News in question. “Roger Ailes’s Demotion Signals Power Shift Within Murdoch Empire,” wrote famous Ailes watcher Gabriel Sherman in New York Magazine on June 17. Business Insider reported that Ailes had been dealt a “massive blow” by his higher-ups at 21st Century Fox.
Some “demotion,” some “blow”: 21st Century Fox today announced that Ailes, who founded Fox News, had signed a new multi-year deal. Coupled with the announcement was the usual rosy statementism. According to the press release, both James Murdoch, designated chief executive of the company, and Lachlan Murdoch, its designated executive co-chairman, commented, “Roger is an incredibly talented executive and we’re pleased he has accepted our offer to continue his extraordinary record of success at 21st Century Fox. We look forward to witnessing his energy and entrepreneurial drive in leading the next wave of growth for Fox News, Fox Business Network and Fox Television Stations, as well as many years of continued success together.” How do two guys make the same comment at the same time?
Anyhow, the most pivotal part of the announcement is this line: “The announcement was made by Rupert Murdoch, Lachlan Murdoch and James Murdoch, to whom Mr. Ailes will jointly report.” That resolves things. Two weeks ago, news broke that 21st Century Fox was making succession plans, as its top boss, 84-year-old Rupert Murdoch, was preparing to hand over control — or more control — to his sons, James and Lachlan. The move threatened to roil the world of Ailes, who had forged a tight relationship with Rupert Murdoch by spending nearly two decades building one of the media’s most profitable properties. And according to various reports, he’d forged un-tight relationships with Murdoch’s sons. So when the leaks first emerged that James and Lachlan would be calling the shots, Ailes told Variety that he would continue reporting to Rupert Murdoch.
A week later, the succession plans became official, and 21st Century Fox affirmed that the company’s business units would be reporting to the mogul’s children. And that included Ailes — even though he would maintain his “unique and longstanding relationship with Rupert,” as a source told Variety.
Now, in Chapter 3 of this melodrama, we learn that he’ll be reporting jointly to three Murdochs. This is no way to run a multinational media company, and there’s no reason to believe that corporate governance of Fox News in the coming years of Ailes’ multi-year deal will be any less chaotic than this charade. In the ego-driven world of New York media, executives have trouble enough reporting to one boss. Must all of Ailes’s e-mails now have three recipients?
Amid all the murkiness, one result is clear: Ailes wins. The former Republican campaign strategist and TV producer won’t be suffering any demotion or any blow, massive or otherwise. He’ll merely continue running the Fox News Channel. And what other individual could possibly do so?
Numbers help to explain Ailes’s indispensability. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, Fox News yielded 18 percent of 21st Century Fox’s total profits in 2014, though it accounts for less than 8 percent of its “employee base.” More important numbers come from cable television news ratings, where Fox News routinely destroys the competition.
The other reason Ailes must win any internal battle over the chain of command is that Fox News is at risk of crumbling without him. Perform a simple exercise: What major news outlet is more personality-driven than Fox News? CNN has Jeff Zucker; MSNBC has Phil Griffin; ABC News has James Goldston; CBS News has David Rhodes; NBC News has Andy Lack; the New York Times has Dean Baquet; The Washington Post has Marty Baron; BuzzFeed has Ben Smith. These are all fine news executives, for sure — but they haven’t spent the last 19 years cultivating the take-a-bullet loyalties of their staffers. Those loyalties are commonly expressed in gushing terms in the books of Fox News talent and on special occasions, like when anchor Megyn Kelly was promoted in 2013 to primetime: “Roger Ailes hired me nine years ago when I was new to this business and he had little other than instinct to suggest it might work out. I was grateful to him then, remain so today, and am excited for this next opportunity.”
Ailes nurtures loyalty with his advice, his expertise in the art of television and sometimes with a little corner-cutting. How grateful is star Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, for example, that Ailes didn’t launch an investigation into his patently false recollections of his long-ago reporting exploits, which came to light this past winter? “Fox News Chairman and C.E.O. Roger Ailes and all senior management are in full support of Bill O’Reilly,” said the network in a statement.
Where would 21st Century Fox find another TV genius who embraces conservative politics, understands audience dynamics and resists proper accountability for his big-money-making stars?
We asked 21st Century Fox just how many years are included in this “multi-year” deal (his current contract was set to expire in 2016). No details, came the response. Suppose it goes without saying that today’s news means that Fox News isn’t yet working too hard on a succession plan for its 75-year-old boss.