'I don’t know another': Fox News faces tough task replacing longtime boss Roger Ailes

Roger Ailes is the only boss the Fox News Channel has ever had in its 20 years in existence. During that time, he created a network that reflected his own political views and bold personality.

Now that the larger-than-life leader of the top-rated cable news channel is expected to leave his post amid sexual harassment charges, the question is whether Fox can replace someone who so closely embodied its identity.

“I don’t know another Roger Ailes out there who brings a unique mix of politics, media and smash-mouth journalism that made Fox what it is,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN journalist who is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

Given the controversy surrounding the Fox News chairman, the Murdoch brothers may pick a more traditional — and less political  — media executive than Ailes, who has been a highly influential figure in the Republican Party.

While 21st Century Fox founder Rupert Murdoch has long been a strong supporter of Ailes, his sons James and Lachlan, now co-executive chairmen of the company, were never great fans of his no-holds-barred management style. They acted fast to investigate the sexual harassment charges against Ailes when former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a suit against the executive on July 6.

Once Fox News star anchor Megyn Kelly spoke with investigators, reportedly telling them she, too, was subjected to harassment by Ailes 10 years ago, his fate appeared to be sealed. Ailes has denied all of the allegations.

Replacing him will be a delicate task. The younger Murdochs do like the revenue and profit that Fox News generates, and analysts who follow 21st Century Fox agree that whoever they select to succeed Ailes would be wise to not tamper with the format that has made it successful.

“Roger was terrific at imparting a sensibility to the network that its viewers very much crave and appreciate,” said Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News president who now consults for digital media companies. “It would be foolish to make changes that alienate the core audience.”

Fox News Channel and its sibling channel Fox Business Network entities generated $900 million in ad revenue in 2015 and an additional $1.5 billion in carriage fees from cable and satellite TV providers, according to research firm SNL Kagan.

“Audiences are unlikely to leave the network so long as a sufficient degree of the network’s current ‘character’ remains in place,” said Brian Wieser, a senior analyst at Pivotal Research Group.

Of course, an exodus of on-air talent could alter that character in a hurry, and some anchors do have contract clauses tied to Ailes being in charge at Fox News. But cable news networks CNN and MSNBC are unlikely to pay the large salaries that Fox News pays its stars (even Carlson was earning more than $1 million a year for a 2 p.m. newscast before the channel decided not to renew her contract). Wieser points out that it would be difficult for a new competing news venture to get the number of subscribers needed to pay a big name such as Sean Hannity.

Seasoned by years as a political consultant for Republican candidates, Ailes showed keen instincts on which issues stirred the passion of viewers who turned to Fox News because they thought other outlets were too liberal. He instilled his own “us against them” attitude in everyone who worked at the channel, from its on-air talent to its communications team, which has kept the channel’s identity consistent over the years.

Ailes, 76, comes from the same generation as TV innovators such as Roone Arledge, the architect of ABC’s sports and news divisions, and Don Hewitt, who created the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes.” Today’s corporate media environment no longer turns out such freewheeling renegades, so Fox News can expect a different tone from its next leader.

“Whenever a visionary charismatic founder steps aside you have to expect some difference,” said Heyward. “Fox authentically spoke to Roger’s own feelings about how to serve the viewers and his feelings on what the country needed.”

But it’s unlikely that parent company 21st Century Fox would turn to another visibly partisan figure such as Ailes. His background as a media advisor for President George H.W. Bush in 1988 and as an advisor to President Nixon’s 1968 campaign made him a lightning rod. Ailes is also unique in having had a long career as a television producer to go with his high-level experience in politics.

Neal Shapiro, a former NBC News president who is now a public television station executive, said Ailes’ combative approach made Fox News so distinctive that the channel could get by with appointing a “caretaker” that can keep the operation running smoothly.

Ailes did not groom a successor at Fox News, which is why handicapping a possible candidate to replace him is tricky. The name most frequently mentioned is Bill Shine, a senior executive vice president at Fox News who has a lot of experience working with the company’s prime-time stars.

Among the executives who could be considered are CBS News President David Rhodes, who came from Fox News and is under contract for several more years; and former CNN President Jonathan Klein, who currently runs a company that develops over-the-top video channels.

Fox cannot afford to be without a leader for too long.  The network faces growing competition for viewers. Republicans and conservatives no longer speak in one voice as they did 20 years ago, as evidenced by the divided party that chose Donald Trump as its presidential nominee.

Nor are they unrepresented in the media as was the case when Ailes first launched Fox News. Cable news networks CNN and MSNBC have added more right-leaning talking heads to their lineups, as have the broadcast network news divisions.

“One of Roger’s other legacies is that his success made others in the media realize that the conservative point of view needed to be incorporated in institutional ways in the coverage,” said Sesno of George Washington University. “What Roger did is make everyone conscious of their ideological perspectives.”

Shares in 21st Century Fox closed at $27 on Wednesday, down 75 cents, or nearly 3%.

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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