Fox News Channel Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, who has guided the cable news network to unprecedented success, resigned yesterday amid a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former anchor Gretchen Carlson, throwing into doubt the long-term future of the network.
Carlson’s lawsuit, filed on July 6, rocked the network and the cable news world as Ailes has been the most potent force in cable news since joining Fox in 1996.
Ailes, who was handpicked by Rupert Murdoch to run the then-fledgling network, has taken it from having to pay cable systems to carry the channel to annually generating $1.5 billion in affiliate revenue and $1 billion in advertising revenue, far outstripping the competition.
Under Ailes, Fox became the number one cable news network—a title it has held since 2002—and last year finished as the number two network in all of cable, trailing only ESPN.
With no one having been groomed to take over for the 76-year-old Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, the 85-year old media mogul, will take over running the network with help from his sons James and Lachlan, who apparently were not fans of Ailes and who helped engineer his departure.
In a statement, Murdoch praised Ailes for making Fox News so successful:
“Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country. Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years. Fox News has given voice to those who were ignored by the traditional networks and has been one of the great commercial success stories of modern media.”
While Ailes will remain as an adviser to the company through 2018 when his employment contract runs out, the question now is who the Murdochs will tap to replace someone who is arguably the most successful CEO in cable news history.
And despite the fact that Fox News is riding high thanks to viewer interest in Donald Trump’s candidacy, there are some clouds on the horizon.
According to the Financial Times, three of the network’s anchors, Bill O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren and Sean Hannity, have clauses in their contracts that allow them to leave if Ailes does.
A potentially bigger problem, however, is that O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly’s contracts expire next year, with O’Reilly on the record as having expressed a desire to retire at some point, and the ambitious Kelly looking for a higher profile gig, which Fox may or may not be willing or able to give her.
Then there is the uncanny ability of Ailes to both spot and develop on-air talent, as well as his programming acumen when it came to deciding how to arrange the network’s lineup of shows. It will be very difficult to find someone who possesses both of those skills and the other intangibles that made Ailes so successful at Fox.
The bottom line is that in the short term Fox will be fine, but if the Murdochs haven’t found a capable successor, or if they can’t re-sign O”Reilly and Kelly, then the cable news landscape could get a lot more competitive.