Meet the New Boss: Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott Keeps Network on Top Amid Controversy

Suzanne Scott - CEO of Fox Newsand Fox Business Network, the first female CEO in the network’s history.
Brad Trent

Suzanne Scott sits atop the most watched operation in cable news, and easily the most controversial. She has managed to keep out of the spotlight during her long run at Fox News — viewers certainly know who Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are, but not her. Yet her anonymity may no longer be possible.

Since ascending to CEO of the unit that manages Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network 11 months ago, Scott, 53, has presided over an organization that continues to be enveloped by a cyclone of criticism from detractors, who think Fox News functions as a propaganda machine for President Trump and his White House.

But Scott, like her late boss, Roger Ailes, who was forced out in 2016 amid a flood of sexual harassment allegations, is unapologetic about the channel’s primetime lineup of contentious right-wing hosts as she attempts to turn the page on an era of scandal and turmoil.

In her first lengthy interview since taking over the top job last May, Scott wants it known that she brings a different style of leadership than her pugnacious predecessor, and that she pays more attention to the demands of Fox News viewers than she does to scathing commentary from critics on social media and television news programs who refer to her network as “state-run media.”

“We became No. 1 under President Bush. We stayed No. 1 under President Obama. We are still No. 1,” she says.  “My focus is on business.”

Scott has nearly 23 years invested in making Fox News a contender. She has been a programming force behind everything from commentator Greta Van Susteren to afternoon roundtable “The Five.” “She was smart and she had instincts,” recalls Van Susteren, who left the network in 2016 and did a short stint at MSNBC before taking jobs with Voice of America and Atlanta-based Gray Television. Scott is determined to keep Fox News tops in U.S. viewership at a time when the channel is facing even headier new challenges. Advertisers have grown squeamish about the network’s primetime schedule, and the Trump news cycle puts Fox News under even more scrutiny than before.

Scott took the reins just in time for her unit to become the single most important operation within the newly minted Fox Corp. The Fox News cash cow generates the bulk of the finances of its parent company, the new entity spawned by Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox. “We think over 80% of the value is Fox News,” says Laura Martin, a media analyst with Needham & Co. That alone ensures that Fox Corp. leaders Lachlan Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch will keep a close watch on Scott’s ship. There’s also no question that she is also under the microscope because of her status as the most powerful female executive in TV news.

She gets high grades from her bosses. “Suzanne is a focused, highly dedicated executive with a results-driven approach to her work,” says Lachlan Murdoch via email. “She has done a great job and continues to excel as CEO.”

Scott says she has moved her company forward after a difficult time and intends to keep its programming front and center, overseeing last year’s launch of the Fox Nation subscription streaming service as viewers transition into an age when news and information are available at the flick of a finger.

“We know we have them on the live, linear opinion and news channel. Now we know more than ever we have them digitally, and it’s growing,” she says from her office at Fox News’ New York headquarters, just steps away from the executive offices of the Murdochs. She says 85% of people who take a one-week free trial of the company’s subscription-based Fox Nation streaming-video service are electing to stay on board. When it comes to the potential of digital media, she adds, “I don’t even think we know the limit of that yet.”

But she offers no concession when asked about Fox News’ content. Several members of the network’s roster have gone to work for Trump, yet Scott dismisses the idea that Fox News is in the palm of the president’s hand. “If you’re a real consumer of Fox News, you know that’s not the case,” she says. Laura Ingraham, who has supported Trump in the past, has admonished the president for his posthumous insults directed at the late Sen. John McCain. And in recent days, the president has criticized some Fox News anchors as well as the network’s decision to take weekend host Jeanine Pirro off the air for two weeks. The move comes in the wake of anti-Muslim comments Pirro made regarding Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar. Scott said she did not want to comment on a personnel matter.

Fox News has arrived at a tricky juncture. Broadening its viewership further could prove challenging for Scott and her team, which recently raised eyebrows by tapping former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile as a contributor. “They are the Trump-based network,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He believes Fox News has become “more conservative than ever,” and if the network brings on so-called Never Trump conservatives, he says, “they hear about it from their viewers. These people aren’t shy.” They were certainly in a celebratory mood last week, with primetime ratings surging following Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report that appears to exonerate Trump.

Moreover, the network has been analyzed for months by liberal advocacy groups, who routinely call out primetime hosts like Carlson and Ingraham for comments they make about immigration and other topics. Many advertisers have moved commercials out of their programs. At the same time, Fox News fans are die-hards. Their devotion to the outlet is a big reason Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network generated more than $2.98 billion in advertising and distributor fees in 2018, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

But if those among Fox’s devoted audience feel the network is caving in to critics, they aren’t afraid to express themselves — and threaten to leave the Fox fold. That puts Scott in an awkward position of defending personalities the core viewers love while hoping that sponsors will support them.

The network’s critics may believe they’ve gained some leverage. With marketers shifting some placement away from Carlson and Ingraham, Fox News’ primetime is filled with direct-response ads for MyPillow, whose owner, Michael J. Lindell, is an avid Trump supporter, and over-the-counter medications; its news programs are stocked with commercials for luxury cars. Ad money spent in support of Ingraham and Hannity rose in 2018, but ad dollars attached to “Tucker Carlson Tonight” fell 47.8%, to $48.3 million from almost $92.7 million in 2017, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. Marianne Gambelli, Fox Corp.’s president of ad sales, says the figures are inaccurate.

“We became No. 1 under President Bush. We stayed No. 1 under President Obama. We are still No. 1.”
Suzanne Scott

Fox News continues to win significantly more ad dollars than either of its main rivals, MSNBC and CNN. But the primetime ad dilemma is notable. Says the University of Virginia’s Sabato, “It is just plain bad publicity.”

Scott says the network is not about to change its stripes. “Our audience is deeply connected to our primetime shows,” she says. “We are the only ones with conservative talent in primetime. We believe in free speech. We fully support our primetime talent, and we’re not going to let the voices of the few impact our business.”

Still, she has tried to bring all sides to the table. Fox News has in the past months made new outreach to Madison Avenue, holding a cocktail party last summer for media buyers and the network’s three primetime hosts, and, more recently, inviting clients to tour the news operations. Advertisers who have pulled ads from primetime “say they are going to pause, with the intent to return,” Gambelli says.

Scott says bringing people together to hash out problems is how she moves business forward. “There wasn’t much communication with the staff under Roger Ailes,” she explains. “My mother always said, ‘There’s no problem you can’t solve if you get directly in front of people and address them the right way and address them quickly.’”

She has used her skill as a “collaborator” to stabilize a workplace that was hurled into disarray by Ailes’ shocking ouster after the sexual harassment controversy that erupted when he was sued by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. In the aftermath, Scott was named president for programming under Ailes’ successors, Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy, before being promoted to the top job. Ailes denied the allegations and died less than a year later — but those claims sparked a wave of lawsuits alleging unsavory behavior at Fox News and proved to be the tip of a movement around harassment and gender parity that would go on to engulf NBC News and CBS News as well.

“There was a lot of noise around this place a few years ago. A lot of people were afraid,” Scott says. “All they heard was, ‘It’s the end of Fox News’ and ‘Fox News no longer exists’ and ‘So long, No. 1.’” She adds, “I wanted to change that conversation.”

Martha MacCallum, Fox News’ 7 p.m. anchor, says she has noticed a “tone change” at the company since Scott took the reins. The executive has made it easier for employees to raise issues with management, holding regular meetings between staffers and top executives, and works to help women who want to have families to negotiate life in the always-on news business. Scott says she is mindful of the perks that companies like Facebook and Google offer their employees in a competitive market for talent. Despite what the network’s liberal detractors might say, Scott has literally taken Fox News out of the basement — or the darker, below-lobby floors of the company’s Manhattan headquarters, where it stayed for years under Ailes. A good chunk of staff has moved to the second floor as part of $130 million in capital improvements made over the past two and a half years that also include revamps of Fox News’ production studios and an overhaul of its digital properties.

Scott relishes studying news programs and anchors. It’s something she has been doing since her arrival at Fox News more than two decades ago, when she began as an assistant to Chet Collier, a veteran programming executive with long-standing ties to Ailes, as the network was being born. The two took part in the frenzied launch in 1996 of Rupert Murdoch’s newest against-the-grain project, a cable-news rival to CNN. Collier would screen tapes from anchors and journalists who might want to join, and Scott sat in on programming meetings.

The experience was “a gift,” she recalls. “We would talk about the people we’d see on the screen. How are they communicating? How are they using their voice? Are they talking too fast? Are they in command of the story? Are they asking interesting questions?”

That led her to a producer role on Van Susteren’s 10 p.m. show on Fox News. Van Susteren had made a mark for herself at CNN with shows that analyzed big court cases, and Scott saw a chance to bring more women into the Fox News viewership base and focus on something other than politics, which was the top subject in the rest of the primetime schedule. She surrounded Van Susteren with “a cast” of attorneys and forensic specialists and sent them and the anchor to crime scenes. Van Susteren analyzed the high-profile murder cases of Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson, among others. A fascinating crime, says Scott, is “like ‘The Young and The Restless,’ a story that every day keeps giving you something new to churn over.”

As a result, Scott “just kept moving up the ranks,” says one former Fox News staffer, and was in management discussions regularly with Shine and Ailes. “A lot of people were intimidated by her because they knew she had a seat of power.”

While Fox News’ primetime hosts get the lion’s share of the public’s attention, Scott has in recent months emphasized the network’s news programs. Viewers have seen Chris Wallace talk to Russian president Vladimir Putin and MacCallum snare an exclusive with then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. On one recent evening, late-night news anchor Shannon Bream scored an exclusive sit down with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro just minutes after primetime host Ingraham interview Ben Carson.

Scott believes viewers have been looking for other kinds of stories after a bruising political-news cycle in the fall. “There is usually a little fatigue after a mid-term. This fall was intense between Kavanaugh and the mid-terms,” she says, noting research found some viewers at holiday time were turning off the TV or drifting over to sports. “One of the conversations Jay [Wallace, president of news] and I have had this past year is big bookings, especially since the new year: New stories. Different stories. Owning stories.” She has added new hours of live programming to the Fox News schedule, at 4 a.m. and 11 p.m., giving new duties to Heather Childers and Shannon Bream, and expanded the presence of news veterans like Harris Faulkner and Bill Hemmer during the day. Faulkner, who now anchors a 1 p.m. program as well as the noon panel show “Outnumbered,” says Scott told her to present a news hour that is like “primetime in the daytime,” and has offered her new opportunities, like hosting a recent town-hall broadcast.

Critics have suggested Fox News can appear lawless, with contributors using harsh epithets on air. In June of last year, Scott held a meeting with producers, telling them they had to “protect the brand,” or crack down on inappropriate comments on air. Fox Business host Stuart Varney and “Fox & Friends” co-anchor Steve Doocy are among those who have in recent months called out guests for getting unruly.

Some of that is just good policy, Scott says, but she has other reasons for making people more mindful of what they say.  She acknowledges Fox News’ primetime hosts have “a little bit more latitude,” but otherwise is averse to empty name-calling. “What is not well known about me is I have a special-needs sister, and I grew up in a household where you could not use certain words to describe or talk about people. And I don’t want to hear things on the air that I think are over the line,” says Scott. “When you are a producer, you are there to protect the brand, and you are there to protect the talent. That is your role in the control room and that is the message I wanted to send. People have to be listening.”

Meanwhile, Scott has come face to face with Fox News’ wide influence. In the summer of 2017, she took her daughter to the Jersey Shore to relax while the Fox News primetime lineup was in flux, having lost two of its primetime hosts in a matter of months. Bill O’Reilly had been ousted from his longtime 8 p.m. roost in April after accusations of sexual harassment, which he denied, and Megyn Kelly had defected in January to seek her fortunes at NBC News. Scott says “dozens of people” on the shore had found out about her job at Fox News, and they peppered her with questions about moving the 5 p.m. panel show “The Five” into primetime as a placeholder. “I’m a pretty quiet person,” she says. “How do they even know who I am?”

Given that Scott is the top woman in TV news, there’s a good chance people will continue to talk about her.