The future of Fox News is in question given the precarious position of chief executive Roger Ailes. As the furor around a sexual harassment suit filed by former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson grows, the 21st Century Fox-owned network could be looking for new leadership.
The network’s parent has said it’s conducting an internal review of the allegations made about Ailes, who signed a new contract in June 2015 that keeps him at the helm of Fox News through 2018. He said in a statement last week that Carlson’s charges are “false” and “retaliatory.”
But if Ailes steps down as a result of the investigation, there’s no telling whether other Fox executives or on-air talent could bolt. Several female Fox News employees, including Maria Bartiromo and Greta Van Susteren, have spoken out in his defense, while other women have come forward with stories of past harassment from Ailes.
No matter the outcome of this legal imbroglio, Fox News is coming face to face with challenges regarding the ways audiences gain access to information and significant shifts in cultural attitudes as new populations join its viewership base. “As of this moment, Fox News is in a better position than any of the other cable-news networks, but that’s no guarantee it will automatically be that way in the future,” said Matthew Wilson, an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “They face a variety of challenges, on the horizon, to their current predominant positioning.”
Millions of dollars are at stake. Market-research firm SNL Kagan projects advertising revenue at Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network will jump about 5.6% to $932.1 million in 2016, compared with $882.6 million last year. Operating revenue from the two networks this year is seen as exceeding $2.5 billion.
To be sure, the network has a loyal fan base that will turn to it and may not be aware of any behind-the-scenes drama involving its top executive. “The FNC brand will still resonate with right of center audiences, regardless of age. The ‘fair and balanced’ coverage is still the counter to traditional news outlets,” noted Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. “This matter is likely of more interest to FNC competitors, print and broadcast, than to FNC viewers. Loyal FNC viewers will remain loyal because they identify more with the Fox content than with the management.”
What happens to the case against Ailes, however, could have serious effects on the content die-hards crave. And industry terrain is tricky no matter what’s happening behind the scenes. Among the most pressing issues at Fox News:
• Accommodating Donald Trump’s impulsiveness: Fox News has grown accustomed to having deep ties with Republican candidates and politicians. But Donald Trump, the party’s presumptive candidate, has proved willing to circumvent Fox News to get his message out — and is all too eager to lend his ratings power to the competition.
“Producers’ sympathies are very much with mainstream Republicans, but what they are discovering is that a large rogue segment is just more receptive to the kind of blue-collar nationalism that Donald Trump has embodied,” says Wilson. “They have been struggling with that in ways the Republican Party and conservatives have been more generally.”
• Megyn Kelly and Bill O’Reilly’s expiring contracts: The two biggest Fox stars have contracts that will be up sometime next year. Kelly and O’Reilly hold down the 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. hours on weeknights, and both have indicated that their loyalty to Ailes has kept them in the fold at Fox, but it’s understood that Kelly is being heavily courted by rivals. The loss of one or both would be a considerable blow in terms of ratings and ad revenue.
• A surging CNN: The cable news stalwart that Fox News pushed out of the No. 1 spot nearly 15 years ago has demonstrated new momentum during the election cycle under the current regime led by Jeff Zucker.
• Meeting the demands of millennials: Young viewers place more value in diversity of race, ethnicity, and religion. “That is certainly something that Fox News will want to accommodate,” Wilson says. Fox nodded to this dynamic by adding Megyn Kelly to its primetime schedule of talking heads, but there could be calls for more programming featuring people of color and more diverse backgrounds. Further, a Pew Research Study found that only 27% of viewers aged 18 to 29 get their news from TV, vs. 72% of those aged 50 to 64. Figuring out how to translate Ailes’ flair for solid TV programming to emerging screens could take on new urgency.