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The King of the Foxes

Sherman gives Ailes great credit for presiding over Fox’s eventual ratings success. Indeed, Ailes learned from CNN’s errors, and Fox’s ratings surpassed those of its rival within just six years. Ailes had several insights. First, he took note of opinion surveys documenting the large number of Americans who distrusted CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN as left-leaning. Ailes targeted this disaffected audience with marketing slogans that pandered to the viewers’ sense of themselves as truth-seekers: “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide.”

Second, by scheduling provocative conservative talk shows in prime time, Ailes constructed an audience that would tune in even when the news cycle was quiet—in between wars, natural calamities, and presidential elections, which were CNN’s specialty. Third, Ailes avoided overpaying for established on-air stars and instead built his own roster of talent from within, which he could shape according to his own sensibility and political proclivities. Finally, the Fox chief had a few tabloid showbiz ideas for cable news that seemed novel at first, such as his unabashed preference for platinum-blond anchorwomen and his deployment of a news ticker—a “crawler”—across the bottom of the TV screen.

Yet the fundamental programming ideas behind Fox News were not original. They were derived from the many precedents of conservative and populist heartland talk radio in America. Commercially successful, populist news-talk broadcasts in the United States dated back to Father Charles Coughlin, who built an audience of tens of millions of listeners during the 1930s by railing erratically against the New Deal. More recently, conservative radio hosts such as the sonorous Paul Harvey had also built very large followings. The biggest stars Ailes hired and promoted at Fox News—O’Reilly, Beck, and Hannity—all had roots in conservative talk radio on the AM dial. If Ailes and Murdoch hadn’t created Fox News, someone else would have adapted conservative radio’s proven formula to cable television.

Toward the end of Fox News’s first decade, the spread of five hundred-channel cable systems further rewarded niche programming, especially if it inspired passion and strong identification within its audience. The same programming model that eventually made the NFL Network and the Food Network so successful also rewarded ideologically homogenous news channels. It didn’t necessarily matter if a network’s audience was large, as long as it was emotionally committed to a subject.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Fox News’s business model is how its audience’s passion shapes and lifts the network’s profits. Normally, when a media company has an audience as old as Fox’s—the network’s median audience age is more than sixty-five—the business struggles financially. That is because younger people buy the most consumer goods and so advertisers prefer them. But Fox News does not make most of its money from advertising. About 60 percent of its revenue—more than $1 billion annually, or about the entirety of its reported profit—comes from fees paid by cable companies for the right to carry Fox News programming, according to Pew. Cable operators who pay these fees don’t care so much about whether Fox’s viewers are young or old; they care more about having viewers who are addicted enough to what’s on cable TV to fork over monthly subscription fees.

The Fox News audience’s fervor also assures that if a cable company ever tried to throw the network off its system, or reduce programming fees, the operator could expect intense, politicized protests. Call this a kind of extortion, or call it leverage in a market economy, but as a result Fox News today receives from the fees paid to it about ninety-four cents per cable subscriber per month, one of the highest rates in the industry, a third greater than what CNN receives and more than double what MSNBC gets. Fox’s high fees are mainly attributable to its superior ratings, but as the industry analyst Craig Moffett told The New York Times last year, the “level of passion and engagement” within Fox’s following has also lifted its revenue because such intense devotion is not easy for cable operators to find.

Here lies the problem in the alliance between Fox News and the Republican Party that Ailes has constructed. Fox owes its degree of profitability in part to its most passionate, even extremist, audience segment. To win national elections, the Grand Old Party, on the other hand, must win over moderate, racially diverse, and independent voters. By their very diversity and middling views, swing voters are not easy to target on television. The sort of news-talk programming most likely to attract a broad and moderate audience—hard news, weather news, crime news, sports, and perhaps a smattering of left–right debate formats—is essentially the CNN formula, which Fox has already rejected triumphantly.

According to Sherman and to an earlier book, based on interviews with Murdoch, by Michael Wolff, Murdoch, Ailes’s boss, has been embarrassed at times by Fox News’s more demagogic talk show hosts.* Yet Fox News is such a cash spigot that Murdoch has been unwilling to impose his reported qualms on Ailes, and has instead extended his contract through 2016. As the chief of Fox News, his compensation runs into the tens of millions of dollars. Karl Rove can yell at Ailes all he wants; Fox News’s profitability and the value it creates for News Corporation is a force distinct from electoral politics.

Toward the end of his book, Sherman chronicles what seem to be Ailes’s emerging Lear years. The wilderness where Ailes wanders is gentleman farmer country north of Manhattan. Around 2008, Ailes and his third wife purchased a weekend home in Garrison, New York, in Putnam County. “All I ever wanted was a nice place to live, a great family, and to die peacefully in my sleep,” Ailes said around that time. Once ensconced in the countryside, he apparently couldn’t help himself, however. He purchased an interest in the local newspaper and launched bitter fights against Putnam politicians over zoning issues.

For all of Sherman’s admirably persistent reporting and the hundreds of interviews he has conducted, there is something about Ailes’s character that remains elusive in his pages. Ailes comes across as both profoundly angry and whimsically charming, darkly driven and creatively humorous; it is difficult for a reader to arrive at an accurate balance of these forces. At one point, while lobbying a local politician in his office, Ailes tosses down printed charts on a desk and declares, apropos of nothing in particular, “What do you think of that?… Fox is outperforming any other cable news network!”

“Well, there are a lot of stupid people out there,” the politician replies.

“Ha!” Ailes answered. “A friend of mine said that, too.”

The lifelong entertainer in Ailes seemingly recognizes that his principal genius might just be showbiz, yet the fierce partisan in him takes excited pleasure from fighting Democrats, regardless of the issues. And increasingly, the ersatz Ayn Rand ideologue lurking somewhere in Ailes’s inner life seems to have guided him toward the belief that market capitalism and America are in grave danger. Only the United States could have produced such a figure at the heart of its political and media culture.

Someday there will be an end to Ailes’s leadership at Fox News, whether it is after the 2016 election or later still. It is tempting to imagine, as Sherman seems to believe, that Fox News’s achievements and those of Roger Ailes are inextricably linked. In fact, it seems more likely that the network’s profitability from programming fees, coupled with the timeworn power of conservative talk, will ensure the channel’s influence for many years to come. Resentments of taxes, of immigrants, of the expansion of government, and of the acceptance of gay rights are among feelings that run deep in some parts of the American population, and they will not go away. Fox News’s ample cash flow means that the network’s programming leaders after Ailes will have lots of money to invest in new ideas, new technologies, new charismatic hosts, and to target younger viewers. Such innovation might ultimately aid the Republican Party much more effectively than Ailes has done. In any event, Democrats have a long record of underestimating Fox News and its audience.

If Fox News’s power is at risk, it is because cable television is at risk. Free news over the Internet destroyed newspapers’ quasi-monopoly position. Similarly, the expansion of online entertainment networks such as Netflix and Amazon might break up the fiefdom of cable sooner than many expect. Brian Roberts, the chief executive of Comcast, the largest cable company in America, which is trying to buy another large provider, Time Warner Cable, predicted recently, “I believe television will change more in the next five years than in the last fifty.” According to this prediction, viewers may switch in huge numbers to the likes of Netflix, in order to watch their favorite shows over mobile smart phones and tablets. Roberts’s forecast is self-serving because it can be used to justify Comcast’s gobbling up of Time Warner. Yet it is hardly a fantasy. The collapse of cable’s position because of Internet-enabled television could erode the political power of Fox News just as rapidly as cable’s triumph enabled it to gain influence less than two decades ago. In this era of disruptive computing power, most media successes are fleeting.

Roger Ailes has always seemed comfortable with such disruption. He certainly has not led a complacent or sentimental life, as he seems well to recognize. “I don’t care about my legacy,” he said after Obama won reelection in 2012 and Fox took some of the blame. “It’s too late. My enemies will create it.” To another interviewer, Ailes conjured his own funeral: “The eulogies will be great, but people will be stepping over my body before it gets cold.”

  1. *

    Michael Wolff, The Man Who Owns The News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch (Broadway, 2008). 

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