Fox News Channel’s ability to capture cable-news viewers is legend, and its success has given rise not only to primetime sensation Megyn Kelly’s “The Kelly File,” but also to everything from Bill O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor” to wee-hours program “Red Eye.”
To truly understand the network, one must consult Roger Ailes, its chairman and chief executive. He is widely credited as the architect of every show on the 21st Century Fox-owned outlet. His imprimatur is stamped upon every programming change, talent hire and scheduling maneuver at Fox News.
Ailes took a few minutes recently to speak with Variety about a new course for Megyn Kelly: a series of specials, slated for 2016, in which she intends to land big “gets,” or sit-downs with politicians, celebrities and other figures in popular-culture who are making news. Below, Ailes talks about what he sees in Kelly, and offers a few thoughts about how to attract the next generation of viewers to Fox News Channel.
Variety: What did you think of Megyn Kelly’s interviews with the Duggars?
Ailes: I watched most of it, I guess. I thought Megyn Kelly did a masterful job. She didn’t miss any questions. I didn’t get to the end and say, ‘I wish she’d asked this.’ She was also thoughtful and not accusatory. The people who criticized the interview obviously didn’t like the Duggars, and so wanted her to be tougher on them, but tougher how? She asked every question that had to be asked.
Variety: She wants to do broader types of interviews with celebrities and cultural figures. Do you think she is up to it?
Ailes: Listen, Megyn is so good today that there is no interview I would not want her to do. She can handle human interest and cultural change. I’m very comfortable with her and we intend to look for other big things to do.
Variety: What is the formula behind her ratings success?
Mr. Ailes: For one thing, she’s a natural. She had to learn her craft, but she’s smart, attractive, is an attorney, and has a naturally aggressive personality. She has done all the elements. She had to put them together. It’ s sort of like if you’re musical, somebody has to teach you the instrument, and what notes to hit. Other than that, she’s now honed her skills to the point where she gets a very good reading on how she should approach an interview, and she’s instinctively right.
Variety: Do you have a sense based on research what demographic she appeals to the most?
Ailes: No, I don’t do that kind of research, believe it or not. I never did any research for the Fox News Channel. If I don’t like them, I don’t put them on the air. If I don’t think they can grow and be better at what they do, I don’t put them on. I want to be able to go out to dinner and be comfortable and not, you know, itch for the evening. She’s a very comfortable person in her own skin. I think young people like her. Certainly women at home, moms, like her. I think men find something to like about her. She plays on a lot of levels. She’s not a one-note type of person. However, she also has a sense of humor. I mean, if the thing goes in a certain direction, she can go with it and play. That just makes her all around interesting to watch.
Variety: How did you mentor her?
Ailes: Well, originally I would just say that I would always tell her what I thought of an interview or a performance, or she’d stop by and talk about it. I thought in the beginning she was trying too hard not to make a mistake. It’s a standard problem of everybody who goes on a camera. They don’t want to look bad. They don’t want to look wrong. They don’t want to look vulnerable. And I said, you know, your strength is it doesn’t matter if you look vulnerable. You’re capable of saying ‘I screwed that up. Let me try this again.’ And also, you don’t have to be Wonder Woman out there. You’ve gotta relate to the audience. So lighten up on yourself a little bit. It would be better. And I think she did do that.
Variety: What does it say about the network that one of its biggest stars is not affiliated with any political party?
Ailes: We have the largest segment of independent viewers of any news channel, so that doesn’t surprise me at all There are Libertarians. There are Conservatives. There are Republicans. There are Democrats. We have Liberals. We even have a few Progressives. We have Liberals or Progressives under contract here, so no, I don’t try to tell and I don’t want to tell anybody how to vote or what to think. The other side of that – the left comes in here with every special-interest group and tries to tell me what to think – but I don’t tell anybody what to think. They can think what they want and say what they want.
Variety: You’ve experimented with shows like ‘Outnumbered’ or Greg Gutfeld’s new Sunday show. Do you have some thought about what the next generation of Fox News viewers wants to watch?
Ailes: Well, I try to take it that the topic is relevant to enough people as opposed to chasing millenials or whatever. I don’t think there is a broad herd of, like, buffalo out there that we’ve got to capture and shoot, because they grow out of that phase and move into another phase, I tend to look more for subjects that are universal, you know?
Variety: Do you think your coverage of certain topics might change as a younger generation becomes more defined members of the Republican Party?
Ailes: You tell the truth in the coverage and I don’t know how that falls. I mean, everything that the federal government is currently doing is broke. That’s a fact. Is that a conservative statement or a liberal statement? Liberals would say, well, that’s how conservatives think. No, it isn’t. It’s broke. Social Security is broke. The veterans are broke. The Army’s broke. Everybody is broke. Nobody really says that, but we tend to say what the truth is, and it’s so shocking, they attack us.
Variety: Conventional wisdom has it that the TV-news anchor is a thing of the past, but Megyn’s ratings are up and she’s finding success in her show. Why do you think she is defying the conventional wisdom?
Ailes: She’s unique. I think the anchorperson – ‘Anchorman,’ the funny guy, Will Ferrell? My 15-year-old son walks around the house doing an impression. ‘I look good. I look real good.’ I think that kind of anchorperson is gone. But somebody who is unique, who chooses to anchor a show, or host shows or be in charge of shows, that’s going to go on forever. The unique ones really stand out and will succeed.