Don’t expect life to get easy for CNN now that its chief tormentor, the guy who built Fox News into a media juggernaut, is out.
Roger Ailes spent the last two decades proving he may be the smartest, most ferocious executive in the TV news and talk news business.
I can’t picture even a 76-year-old Ailes really leaving the media and politics industry or walking away from a fight.
But he did leave his post as chairman of Fox News (stuffed with a reported $40-million-plus payout) amid allegations of sexual harassment, including a suit by former anchor Gretchen Carlson.
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Donald Trump was asked recently whether Ailes will join his campaign. The Donald didn’t say yes. Didn’t say no.
Remember that during one of Trump’s dust-ups with anchor Megyn Kelly, Fox News criticized the candidate’s “endless barrage of crude and sexist verbal assaults” and said “his extreme, sick obsession with her is beneath the dignity of a presidential candidate who wants to occupy the highest office in the land.”
I assume Ailes penned that one.
He and Trump know how to work the TV business. And Ailes certainly knows how to be a political operative. He massaged the messages of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush before launching Fox News for Rupert Murdoch (who now is taking over the network’s chairmanship, but whose sons are increasingly calling the shots).
“It is never a good idea to count Roger Ailes out,” former CNN chief Tom Johnson told me. (He also said he considers Ailes a friend, though it “startles some of my good friends who find it unimaginable.”
“Roger is one hell of a competitor.”
CNN, once the revolutionary in TV news, got out-revolutionized by Ailes.
It took him maybe five years or so to go from zero to deep-sixing CNN in the ratings race.
I covered the media industry back then. Shortly after Fox won the title of most watched cable news network, Ailes told me: “We’re going to continue to kick their ass up around their ears every day. I’m looking forward to doing that for some time in the future.”
It’s nice to enjoy your work.
Ailes employed a scorched-earth operation when it came to rivals. After veteran Paula Zahn jumped from Fox News prime time to launch a CNN morning show, he bought billboard space right outside CNN’s Atlanta offices. It proclaimed that the “Fox & Friends” morning show was “Warmer. Younger. Smarter.”
An Ailes spokesman told me “Paula Zahn’s supposed attempt at reinventing herself as a journalist is like putting a fresh coat of paint on an outhouse.”
My jaw dropped a lot when I talked to Fox News PR folks back then.
Fox News’ audience is far bigger than CNN’s and growing this political year.
And it soared with the GOP national convention, though CNN did better on the first night of the Democratic version.
It also has more young and middle-age viewers than CNN does. That matters because advertisers adore youth.
Still, Fox News is graying. The median age of its viewers is 67 (versus 60 for CNN). And for younger viewers, the previous three years marked its lowest ratings in about 15 years.
Meanwhile, CNN’s ratings were up last year as well as this year and, in spots, it narrowed a bit of the gap with Fox News.
CNN learned a lot from its rival over the years.
Back in the day, CNN looked frumpy. Fox News was snappy and colorful. It highlighted conversations and opinion shows.
It played up personalities when CNN execs were saying that “news is the star” and pointing to awards, veteran journalists and numerous bureaus that they said delivered more scoops and context to viewers. Whatever.
Of course, Ailes’ biggest success was that he targeted people frustrated — enraged even — by CNN and lots of other news outlets that they saw as biased lefties.
He had the field to himself, at least on TV. And not only did viewers turn to Fox News, they parked there, hunkering down to soak up as much as they could.
Give customers exactly what they want and you’ve got brand loyalty.
“Ailes was interested in creating something that didn’t exist at the time,” said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political science professor who wrote the book “Dark Genius” about Ailes.
“It is the first news network built from the ground up to have a political viewpoint.” I can’t see Fox News veering off that script much, whether or not Ailes is there.
But that doesn’t mean the same playbook will ensure the network remains as king of the hill. If anything, this election has shown that political loyalties shift, and anything that looks like “the establishment” can be upended.
Fox News’ earlier tussles with Trump hint at what CNN was taught by Ailes long ago: No brand is unassailable.
In business there’s always another revolutionary looking to devour a piece of your pie.
Matt Kempner writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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