NEW YORK, N.Y. – Roger Ailes’ successor at Fox News faces a delicate task in changing the culture of a news organization forever identified with one man, and push it forward for a new generation without alienating an audience that has made it a tremendously lucrative business.
Take a deep breath.
“The fact that Rupert Murdoch was named chairman and CEO shows how hard it is to find someone with the name and recognition of Roger Ailes,” said news consultant Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News president. “They’d have to go to the top of Mount Everest.”
But Murdoch, the 85-year-old executive chairman of 21st Century Fox who hired Ailes to invent Fox News two decades ago, is no long-term solution.
Ailes groomed no obvious successor. Murdoch said current Fox managers Bill Shine, Jay Wallace and Mark Kranz will help him run the company, which also includes the Fox Business Network, on a day-to-day basis. They, along with Fox’s Michael Clemente, would have to be in the mix for the successor’s role.
The replacement of Lex Fenwick with William Lewis as CEO of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal publisher in 2014 is instructive in how the same company replaced a strong personality who rubbed some people the wrong way with a more soothing one, said Ken Doctor, a media consultant for Newsonomics and Politico. Jesse Angelo, publisher of the New York Post, is one who could fit that bill, he said.
Ailes, who resigned under pressure Thursday amid accusations of sexual harassment, was a strong manager who inspired both loyalty and fear. The first priority is to have someone who can calm the waters and keep Fox running smoothly through the election, Doctor said.
Ailes’ genius was in identifying an audience dominated by conservative viewers and giving them a home. It led Fox to the top of the cable news ratings in 2002, where it has remained. Any sign that Fox was losing its tough, take-no-prisoners attitude without Ailes could at least raise suspicions with its loyal fans.
Dramatic changes to the on-air product would be foolhardy, Heyward said.
“It’s easier to chase people away than attract them,” he said.
Conservatives watch closely for signs — and even reports that Rupert Murdoch’s son James is more liberal than many of the network’s personalities is regarded with suspicion, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative media watchdog Media Research Center. James and his brother, Lachlan, are top executives who run 21st Century Fox.
“There would be a concern if it became just mildly to the right of centre,” Graham said. “People would lament that. What conservatives value the most about Fox isn’t the constant reaffirmation of what they believe, it’s that Fox is going to do a story that the rest of the media isn’t going to do. If that stops happening, I think everybody would be distraught.”
Doctor said Fox needs to come to grips with a digital future and look for ways to reach a younger audience, which is something CNN has made inroads on recently. Fox, like all of the news networks, is riding high in the ratings in an election year but viewership is almost certain to go down next year and bring new challenges.
Ailes’ promotion of Megyn Kelly to prime time is a template for Fox, he said. She’s younger, bold and often challenges Fox’s orthodoxy. It would be a good model to follow, if the model stays: Kelly’s contract ends later this year and keeping her is a top priority for the company.
There was talk about an exodus of Fox talent with Ailes; Bill O’Reilly has mused about retirement and reportedly he and Sean Hannity have the ability contractually to leave if Ailes is gone. Doctor thinks such talk is overblown.
“In a sense, they’ve painted themselves into a very lucrative hole,” he said. “If you’re Hannity, there aren’t a lot of places that are going to pay you (as much) to do what you’re doing.”
AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.