Had it not been for the Republican National Convention, the departure of Roger Ailes from Fox News might have been the top story of the week. The Post’s Paul Farhi reports:
Roger Ailes, the founder and chief executive of Fox News, has resigned from his position under fire, but will remain with the company until 2018 as a consultant, Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, said Thursday.
Ailes will be replaced temporarily by Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of 21st Century Fox, the company said. The resignation marks the sudden and swift end to the 20-year reign of one of media’s most powerful moguls, a man who micromanaged talent acquisition at Fox, shaped its conservative viewpoint, and turned it into a ratings juggernaut.
Aside from the identity of the next news boss, it is not entirely certain in the post-Trump era what Fox News programming will look like. Its core news operation has admirable journalists (both straight news and analysis) including James Rosen, Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Brit Hume. But, of course, that has increasingly, sometimes unfairly, been subsumed to the evening info-tainment colossus.
A report from CNN, a Fox rival, explains that Ailes not only made a ton of money for his employer but also created a whole new niche of news by “hiring hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and enforcing a conservative editorial point of view.” We would concur with CNN reporters’ assessment that Fox rewrote the news rules in some disturbing ways:
The channel claimed to be “fair and balanced,” but in reality its programming was tilted in favor of conservative opinions and Republican politics, reflecting the views of Ailes himself. Fox mixed daily news reporting and nightly conservative opinion in ways that many critics found to be damaging to American discourse. But Fox’s many fans said it was a necessary counterweight to liberal media bias.
Within six years, Fox came to dominate cable news ratings, dethroning CNN, and it has been a wildly successful business, with annual profits believed to exceed $1 billion.
Nevertheless, it is fair to ask whether Fox has reached a point of diminishing returns. The evening lineup of hosts comically threw their weight behind Donald Trump, as did the “Fox & Friends” morning show. Trump could rely on them to throw softballs and to shred his political competitors for him. At times it seemed to be one giant in-kind donation to Trump. Since Trump often migrated from the debate stage directly into an interview with Hannity, the line between news and entertainment was lost.
In becoming Trump’s unofficial PR team, however, the Fox evening stars managed to alienate and sometimes infuriate non-Trump voters. Perhaps it is for that reason that Fox’s convention ratings were blah. On Thursday, tallying the first three days of the convention, media trackers found that “Fox News is still head and shoulders ahead of its competition as far as coverage of the Republican National Convention is concerned. But CNN is shrinking the gap considerably.” Fox viewership was actually down from 2012. (“Fox News averaged 5.81 million total viewers to CNN’s 3.03 million. For Fox News, that’s actually a slight decrease from the same night of 2012’s RNC. For CNN, though, that’s more than double their total viewer average (1.12 million) from 2012.”)
Republicans may let bygones be bygones after the election and return en masse to Fox. Perhaps, but in the interim, many have found alternative sources for their news. Conservatives are discovering that the mainstream media is not homogenous and always biased in favor of liberals. Fox’s competitors would be smart to compete vigorously for Fox viewers, whose news loyalty is now in doubt.
Fox also has a demographic problem. For a couple of years now, Fox has been seeing its audience turn from middle-aged to old. TVNewser reported at the end of 2015: “Through Dec. 15 (which was the day of the last GOP debate), CNN’s median age was 61 years old for total day, and 59 years old for prime time (Monday-Sunday). MSNBC’s audience is two years older, at 63 (for both total day and prime time), while FNC’s is 67 for total day and 68 in prime time. For both MSNBC and FNC that’s the oldest level on record in both dayparts.” Eventually, to be blunt, Fox’s audience will die off unless it grabs a bigger share of younger voters. The same problem plagues talk radio, where audiences are shrinking and older audiences drive down ad revenue.
Fox (like the GOP itself) must eventually find a more diverse following to reflect the country at large. Self-important, staunch conservatism is proving increasingly out of style, and with aging hosts and viewers Fox cannot stick with the Ailes formula and stars forever. If not immediately, then sometime soon, Fox may seize the opportunity to find an updated formula, less fawning (and mockable) in cheerleading for the right. If in the process it regains some journalistic respectability, all the better. Just don’t count on it. Whoever takes over for Ailes may be inclined for a while not to mess with success.