Jolly Roger’s grand plan

The news czar is revamping Rupe's station group, and your local newscast will never be the same

What happens when the worlds of Bill O’Reilly and Bart Simpson collide? Fox viewers around the country are about to find out.

Two months after Lachlan Murdoch’s abrupt resignation as News Corp. deputy chief operations officer, cable news impresario Roger Ailes is wasting no time bringing the conglom’s network of 35 TV stations into the Fox News fold.

And for the first time the former GOP operative will get to see if the brash brand of news and opinion that made him the king of cable will translate to a broadcast audience in urban centers that is a generation younger — and not necessarily interested in news.

In the weeks since Ailes was anointed chairman of the stations group, he’s moved the center of power from Los Angeles, where the group has been run for years, to the Fox News nerve center in New York.

Ailes put underperforming 20th Television on a short leash by canceling “A Current Affair” and replacing it with a show produced out of Fox News studios, “Geraldo at Large,” a series they’ve rushed into production to get on the air in time for November sweeps.

Ailes added CBS exec Dennis Swanson to a group of Fox News Channel hands to run the group, including CEO Jack Abernethy and senior veep of news operations Sharri Berg in what amounts to a grafting of the Fox cable news operation onto its network of 35 local stations.

Staff at News Corp.’s far-flung station group — which includes Fox and UPN affiliates across the country — are waiting to see what changes are ahead. While it’s still early in the new regime, one thing seems certain: The landscape of local television is going to change.

Local news editors, producers and on-air talent have been flown to New York for intense two-day training sessions to help local news personalities abandon dry anchor-speak and adopt a more Foxian barstool conversational style. The Fox 24-hour news operation is re-tooling to become a network-style engine for new national news programs starting with Rivera’s syndicated show, but that’s just the beginning.

“We hope to tap into that resource in ways that haven’t been done in the past by rolling out national news and information programs and providing elements that can be used in local news,” says CEO Abernethy.

Abernethy won’t rule out a national evening newscast to take on the Big Three newsies Brian Williams, Bob Schieffer and whoever inherits Peter Jennings’ post. “It comes up,” he says. “Right now there is no great demand for that from the stations.”

As architect of the Fox News Channel phenomenon, Ailes built the dominant cable news outlet from scratch. But beyond trouncing CNN, Fox News also injected a conservative point of view into the political debate that made Fox a factor beyond the 2 million or so who tune in during primetime. The net beat even the broadcast nets during its coverage of the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Now, with the stations and 20th Television under his wing, suddenly Ailes becomes one of the most powerful execs in television with the ability to see his vision writ large across the broadcast landscape. At the stations, some staff expressed concern that Ailes’ army would politicize the news operations.

Few would deny that Ailes knows how to create compelling TV and identify charismatic news talent. What local news director wouldn’t want dozens more Shepard Smiths to bloom in Orlando, Chicago or Kansas City?

News Corp. owns both a Fox and a UPN affiliate in the top three media markets –New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — and other duopolies in six more of the top 20 markets, including Dallas, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. News Corp. owns stations in 26 markets in all, reaching 45% of the country.

But these stations have a much different audience profile than Fox News Channel viewers. For all its ratings might, Fox News Channel’s audience, at 59, is the oldest on cable or broadcast, except for CNBC, which tops out at 61. Fox’s network audiences were once some of the youngest in the biz, and though they’ve crept older as the net has matured, the average Fox broadcast viewer is 38. Yet Fox News’ tabloid feel and flashy graphics is compatible with local Fox news — and these days, local Fox viewers are getting a bigger dose of FNC programming than ever before.

Since the Fox Network doesn’t have a news division, the stations carry a feed from FNC during big events such as primetime presidential speeches, the selection of a pope and the like. Chris Wallace’s “Fox News Sunday” airs across the country, and beats ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” in that show’s most significant media market, Washington, D.C.

The idea of a national newscast would be the most significant shift for Fox. Many of Fox’s smaller-market stations — former CBS affils acquired in 1997 when Fox bought New World Communications — do air an early-evening news from 5-6 p.m., but many don’t air any news until 10 p.m.

Shepard Smith told the AP he would welcome the opportunity to front such a show, but Fox News’ top-rated talent, Bill O’Reilly says he’d be surprised if Ailes gets into the evening news game.

“A national newscast is not really compatible with Fox’s early evening, because there isn’t really a place to put it,” O’Reilly says. “They make all this money off ‘The Simpsons’ and all these other syndicated shows they have. Why take the hit and why compete against the Fox News Channel?”

But the idea of a Fox-branded national newscast has some appeal for local stations that have been looking at higher programming costs and scarcity of new sitcoms to hit the syndication market.

“I think it makes sense on a certain level,” says Lew Leone, the newly appointed general manager of Fox’s flagship station, WNYW and UPN affiliate WWOR in New York. “It would also help the credibility of Fox as the most powerful name in news.”

Local news pioneer Al Primo says a Fox evening broadcast could help out the network by dumping a bigger audience into primetime. “It would be a daring move, but Fox News Channel might be able to pull it off,” he says.

Other national programming initiatives include a primetime skein, “Crime Time,” and a 9 a.m. talker in development that would replace the hodgepodge of syndicated shows airing on Fox stations such as “The Tyra Banks Show,” “Divorce Court,” and “Live With Regis and Kelly.”

The centerpiece of Fox-under-Ailes will be expanded local news. Local news is expensive, but unlike programming distributed by a network, Fox-owned stations keep all the advertising proceeds.

Abernethy says he plans to help seed the local news operations with the whiz-bang production values that are the hallmark of Fox News. Talent deals could see local and national personalities shared between the Fox News and local stations.

While at WCBS, Leone helped engineer the deal with CBS News president Andrew Heyward that allowed the local affiliate to share the services of weatherman Dave Price with CBS’ “The Early Show.” “Now that both entities (the stations and FNC) report into Roger Ailes, I definitely think there will be some talent opportunities,” he says.

Where Fox News could help the stations take share in their local markets would be to improve their morning newscasts, which take on “Today,” “Good Morning America” and “The Early Show.”

Abernethy told the New York Observer he would like to see morning news lead into a talkshow, before taking a turn to jurisprudence with a court show leading into “Cops.” Twentieth TV produces “Judge Alex,” which is beating both “Tyra” and “Martha” in syndication.

In New York, WNYW’s “Good Day New York” used to win the morning race outright; now it runs third to NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.” In Los Angeles, KTTV’s “Good Day LA” is a perennial powerhouse.

Fox’s local 10 p.m. newscasts are another huge profit center for the local stations that could benefit from a boost from Fox News. Fox’s 10 p.m. news competition comes from Tribune’s WB stations. In some markets, News Corp.’s Fox and UPN affiliates compete in news at 10 p.m. — an issue Leone says he’ll examine in New York. KCOP’s newscast has shifted to 11 p.m. in L.A.

But what makes Fox tick is different from that which makes other webs work. Fox News Channel tried — and failed — to get into the network primetime newsmag biz with a Smith-fronted show, “The Pulse,” in 2002.

But Fox News’ success on cable showed the importance of differentiation in a fracturing market. Will it translate on the local level?

“If they were to take the resources of a Fox News and the strong personalities they have there, would that draw audiences? Maybe,” says Bill Carroll, VP of Katz Television, which advises local stations on programming. “But are you extending the brand or diluting it?”

News Corp.’s station group is its biggest cash flow generator, but sales slipped 5% in the fourth quarter, which ended June 30, and its biggest stations have struggled the most. Ailes will have to judge how much of the Fox News mojo it will take to reverse the slide.

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