Ailes Takes Aim at Stations’ Flaws

Aug 22, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, famous for a take-no-prisoners style of management and communications, has a long to-do list as he prepares to take on oversight of the Fox Television Stations.

The stakes are high. The stations group and Twentieth Television, the producer-distributor of syndicated programming that reports in to the stations, accounted for more than $900 million in operating income, or about 30 percent of News Corp.’s operating income, for the year ended June 30.

“The stations have to serve their local community. They have to be very strong competitors,” Mr. Ailes, 65, told TelevisionWeek in a phone interview last week. “They have to generate income. It’s a matter of getting all these things working together. That’s something I can enjoy doing.”

Mr. Ailes is scheduled to meet today with Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy, who in the past 10 years has been a key Ailes executive at CNBC and Fox News Channel.

Among the key issues the two men plan to discuss is Nielsen Media Research’s conversion to Local People Meters in major markets, which “concerns” Mr. Ailes, he said.

“They continue to roll out markets. We hope they get the numbers right,” Mr. Abernethy said in an interview last week.

Among other challenges the executives face, Twentieth has failed for years to launch hit programs for the stations, a track record Mr. Ailes and Mr. Abernethy need to improve.

At the same time, News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch continues to push for Mr. Ailes to launch a business news network, an endeavor Mr. Ailes said is still a ways off.

For now, though, it’s too soon to talk about most things concerning his new responsibilities, Mr. Ailes said more than once during the interview.

He did, however, talk a bit of office politics, refuting speculation that his new assignment became a fait accompli as soon as Lachlan Murdoch, who previously oversaw Fox TV Stations, resigned from his father’s empire July 29. Mr. Ailes downplayed the notion of any friction between himself and News Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin.

In addition, Mr. Ailes dished about the competition, CNN, whose longstanding affiliate relationship with the Fox stations he is expected to abolish as soon as he is able.

Mr. Ailes said he recently talked with both Rupert Murdoch and Mr. Chernin about the multimillion-dollar battle Fox parent company News Corp. has waged against Nielsen since the research company began converting major TV markets to the LPMs at a fast clip nearly a year and a half ago.

“I’m getting briefed by some of our people at the beginning of the week on this,” he said. “It concerns me. I will have a position in a few weeks, probably.”

Others familiar with News Corp.’s anti-Nielsen campaign say they do not expect Mr. Ailes to take any pressure off the TV research company, which has no competitors in this country.

Twentieth Television President and COO Bob Cook has, to Mr. Murdoch’s dismay, not produced any first-run hits for the Fox-owned stations. “On-Air With Ryan Seacrest” lasted nine months last year. “A Current Affair,” the groundbreaking show that helped define Fox stations from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, was resurrected in March but has not popped in the ratings.

Mr. Ailes was the Emmy-winning executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show” before becoming well-known as a media adviser to Republican presidents and famous as the head of Fox News Channel who sent CNN tumbling from its top spot in cable news ratings. His producing savvy is expected to come into play.

Mr. Ailes, who reportedly had more than two years left on his contract when he got his new assignment from Mr. Murdoch, said his bosses, Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Chernin, know he’s “a good soldier.”

“That’s basically what I do,” Mr. Ailes said. “Tell me what you need to get done and I’ll try to get it done for you. That’s sort of how I view it.”

He said he and Mr. Chernin see each other every time Mr. Chernin is in New York. “We have lunch. We talk frequently. Peter is a brilliant executive who has the confidence of both coasts, Hollywood and Wall Street,” Mr. Ailes said. “I work well with Peter and he’s been very, very supportive of me in doing more.”

He added that the reporting structure at News Corp. is more fluid and less military-style than outsiders might think.

“What matters is everybody’s in the loop and I’m keeping both [Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Chernin] informed on what I’m up to. For instance, sales reports. I copy Rupert and Peter when I send in a sales report. If Peter’s in New York, I see him. If Rupert’s in China, I talk to Peter. If Rupert’s in the building, I talk to him.”

He easily boiled down the division of labor with the stations and Twentieth. “Jack is the day-to-day CEO/operator of these businesses, but I will definitely be involved with programming and aspects of it,” he said. “Jack has worked with me 10 years. He knows when I feel really strongly about something.

“The good thing about Jack is he pushes back, he has a point of view. He will argue the point of view. That’s his value as an executive. There are many of the decisions I will support him on. I have for 10 years supported decisions he’s made, so I will continue to do that. But I believe there’s a good give-and-take there.”

One thing Ailes-watchers can put big money on: He will, with a great deal of satisfaction, if not outright glee, confront the supreme irony of Fox-owned stations having been allowed to remain affiliates of CNN well after he turned 9-year-old Fox News Channel into the King Kong of cable news and reduced CNN to the butt of his jokes.

“CNN has announced they’re going to kill us for the last five years-in six months, then in 18 months. Now [CNN/U.S. President Jonathan] Klein says, ‘Well, in two years we’re going to kill ’em.’ That must be the end of his contract,” Mr. Ailes said.

“Every time someone comes in and says they’re going to do this in six months or eight months, I know they don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “I think this is astounding. It’s like the old Soviet regime: I expect him to come out with a 15-year plan.”

Mr. Ailes was particularly blunt about CNN’s newest programming initiative, “The Situation Room,” the three-hour weekday block that revolves around Wolf Blitzer and a constantly changing video wall that debuted two weeks ago and has not helped CNN close the ratings gap with Fox News, which frequently attracts three times CNN’s viewers.

“What they’ve decided is they’re not getting the ratings with their programming, so they’ve decided to get the ratings with their walls. In other words, just program the walls-and by the way, if I were Wolf, who is a very nice guy and a very good journalist, I would be deeply suspicious of them having me spend half of my time with my back to camera. I’m not sure what that plan is, but every time I look at that his back is to camera,” Mr. Ailes said.

“It’s like going to one of those Imax movies where you go out and you say, ‘Wow, that was great,’ and then you puke, because your stomach is upset from watching the walls move. It’s not good. You actually don’t want your walls to move that much. It’s like a fundamental thing among humans. You’d sort of like your walls to be steady.”

On the business news channel that’s on Mr. Murdoch’s wish list, Mr. Ailes said it is not imminent, nor is a much-speculated morning news show for the stations.

“There have been conversations about [a morning show]. But you know that Fox local is very important and Fox local morning shows are improving and doing well, and I think that I don’t want to do anything to screw up the local morning shows,” Mr. Ailes said. “If there are other shows that could work for the station group, we will certainly explore them. I think I can move quickly and do pilots and do shows, but it’s all pretty premature at the moment.

“It’s sort of like the business channel everybody is talking about. And it can’t happen unti
l you really have all the ducks lined up, and we don’t. To pretend we do would be stupid.”