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Ailes Makes Some Moves

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The ostensible calm following Roger Ailes’ appointment to the post of Fox Television Stations chairman lasted less than a month before he and stations CEO Jack Abernethy started making things happen in the 35-station group.

Boom! Longtime Fox stations President Tom Herwitz was gone last week.

Pow! “A Current Affair” learned last week that it is being canceled and will be replaced on Fox owned-and-operated stations by a newsy weekday strip starring Geraldo Rivera.

Plop! On the same day Mr. Rivera’s new show was announced, Rupert Murdoch said his company is negotiating with cable operators for carriage of the business-themed cable channel he has for two years encouraged Mr. Ailes to develop.

Next! Mr. Abernethy is thought to be zeroing in on finalists for general manager of Fox-owned stations WNYW-TV and WWOR-TV in New York, which have been without a permanent leader for months.

Upon his exit from the group, Mr. Herwitz composed a farewell message that pointedly did not mention either Mr. Ailes or Mr. Abernethy. Instead Mr. Herwitz wrote how much he enjoyed working with parent company News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan Murdoch.

Lachlan Murdoch’s decision in early August to resign from News Corp. stunned the media world and left a vacancy at the top of the stations group, which the younger Murdoch had supervised. The Fox TV stations are said to account for 30 percent of News Corp.’s operating income.

On the other hand, the anointing of Mr. Ailes last month as stations chairman (he also remains chairman of Fox News) was widely expected. Mr. Ailes was reunited with Mr. Abernethy, who reported to Mr. Ailes for nearly nine years at Fox News.

The Fox O&Os have carried “A Current Affair” since its resurrection last March by Twentieth Television, the Fox stations’ programming arm, at the behest of Lachlan Murdoch.

The axing of “Affair,” which had returned as a pallid version of the rock-’em, sock-’em tabloid show that changed American TV journalism when it debuted in 1986, also seemed a foregone conclusion once Mr. Ailes took the stations group under his wing. By all accounts, it was Mr. Ailes’ campaign to convince Rupert Murdoch to dump “Affair” that was a precipitating factor in Lachlan Murdoch’s decision to go be his own man in Australia.

Word is that Mr. Ailes may not name an executive producer for Mr. Rivera’s new show until after he has assigned its development to a “strike team” of people who know what Mr. Ailes likes and what has made Fox News Channel the dominant cable news network.

There also is talk that because even the peripatetic Mr. Rivera can’t be everywhere, he is likely to be supported by field reporters, who are still to be named.

Mr. Rivera’s show, titled “Geraldo at Large,” will be distributed by Los Angeles-based Twentieth Television and produced in New York, where it will originate live from News Corp./Fox News facilities.

Mr. Murdoch said the Fox Business Channel was certain to launch “soon,” though not as soon as early 2006, his previous target. Other sources said the launch will not happen until the company has carriage commitments from cable operators that would guarantee enough subscribers to reach critical mass in two to three years. Insiders said Mr. Herwitz’s days had been numbered as soon as Mr. Abernethy was named stations group CEO in December 2004 because Mr. Herwitz had never been a fan of Fox News and had not been shy about making his disaffection known.

Having Mr. Ailes behind him made it easier for Mr. Abernethy to pull the trigger on Mr. Herwitz, insiders said last week.

The search for a new general manager in New York may have been complicated by Viacom co-president and co-chief operating officer Leslie Moonves’ recent decision to promote Tom Kane from sales chief to president and CEO of the Viacom Television Stations Group instead of bringing in someone from outside. Mitch Stern, the former Fox stations group president and former DirecTV president and CEO had been widely considered the leading candidate. Some key Viacom group executives who were said to be bent on exiting rather than working for Mr. Stern are now thought to be less inclined to leave.

Although there has been speculation that Mr. Ailes would like to move all station group executives to New York, a source familiar with his thinking suggested that he does not think that is necessary, and that he and Mr. Abernethy want to focus on developing an overall strategy for the group while trusting strong managers to develop and execute local strategies with input from the top.

In the meantime, Mr. Ailes met recently with Mr. Moonves and UPN President Dawn Ostroff. The meeting is presumed to be a courtesy call paid to the man newly in charge of UPN’s most important affiliates, the UPN stations that are part of Fox owned-and-operated duopolies in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago Washington, Minneapolis, Houston, Orlando, Fla., and Phoenix. Representatives of all parties involved in the short meeting declined to talk about what was said.