NEW YORK — Bossier bosses might have second-guessed Roger Ailes as he slowly but methodically fashioned the fledgling — and much-maligned — Fox News Channel into a powerhouse newsie.
But Rupert Murdoch and Peter Chernin gave Ailes room and time, even while remaining in constant touch.
“The great thing about Peter and Rupert is that there is a lot of freedom with these guys to get down and get what you need to get done,” Ailes says.
“They understood that I had some entrepreneurial skills of my own.”
Indeed, Ailes and his team put those talents to good use.
Launched in 1996, Fox News is the country’s No. 1 news channel, holding an impressive ratings lead over CNN and MSNBC. (Its gain over CNN — an unheard of prospect not so long ago — actually continues to widen.)
Fox News began to gain ground during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Republican outcry against the Clinton presidency and Democratic party. Then came the Republican’s White House win in the chaotic presidential race.
Fox News grabbed the lead from CNN more than 18 months ago, and hasn’t looked back.
Not only that, but Fox News has boasted some of the top-rated programs on all of cable, among them, “The O’Reilly Factor,” headlining conservative host Bill O’Reilly.
“The business is here, and we’re doing well and we are beating the competition,” Ailes says.
Many love to gripe about FNC’s conservative tone, but there is no doubt that MSNBC and CNN are trying to emulate FNC’s style, or what they think is FNC’s style. MSNBC recently hired ultra-conservative radio host Michael Savage, only to quickly oust him for making derogatory comments to a gay caller.
Ailes isn’t wasting time these days publicly debating the merits of his news operation. But he’s been known to remind that competitors shouldn’t confuse a talkshow like “O’Reilly” with regular news programming. He also says a Bill O’Reilly isn’t to be confused with a Michael Savage.
This summer, Ailes and his team marked another important victory — winning over Madison Ave. Any concerns advertisers had about buying time on an upstart channel perceived as having a decidedly conservative bent seemed to have all but evaporated.
Ailes is a veteran of the network news biz; he worked for years at NBC, where, among other things, he launched cable news channel CNBC.
“NBC used to have a lot of meetings. You’d have to get your coat on and your tie and you’d go sit in the meetings. Strange, you’d never do any of the things you’d talk about,” Ailes says.
“Here, they never have these kinds of meetings. If there is a specific thing, you get a phone call, or they’ll come down for a few minutes.”
As for Murdoch’s oversight of the newsie, Ailes says he talks to Murdoch several times a week, yes, but that the mogul does not dictate the news budget.
Ailes also talks to Chernin on a regular basis.
“I think Peter has spent most of his life around creative people. Therefore, he understands that guiding the process rather than controlling the process is more beneficial,” Ailes says. “His questions are always to the point. We can move to ad sales to programming with a great deal of fluidity.”
Ailes said Chernin doesn’t overreact when a problem or issue comes up, such as when Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera ignored Pentagon rules and revealed U.S. troop location during the Iraq war. Rivera was pulled from the Pentagon’s embedded program and hurried out of the war zone.
“Peter said it was fine, and that it was all going to blow over,” Ailes says. “The good news is that the management style around here is, in one sense, like good parenting.”