The Man Who Changed TV News Is About to Change It Again

The most reviled CEO in America—at least by the establishment media—was Roger Ailes, who disrupted the TV news industry when he created Fox News, now a profitable and powerful voice that has elbowed its way into American media past established rivals. But is technology threatening to destabilize access as young people increasingly opt to watch online video rather than pay for traditional TV content?

September 5 2013 by JP Donlon


Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes has said he worries about the impact of what he called “cord nevers.” These are consumers, often younger people, whose media consumption habits simply do not and may never include a monthly subscription to traditional cable. Do you share this concern and its possible disruptive consequence for cable news?

Anybody in our business who didn’t worry about how the youth is affecting the use of media would be negligent. The good news about younger people is they get older. And when they get older, some of their habits change back to older people’s habits. So this tremendous fear that it’s all going to disappear would depend on [everybody’s] staying 22 years old, and they don’t.

On the other hand, media habits are changing. Information is flowing across different platforms. When we started Fox News in 1996, there was a tremendous push because we believed that convergence had already occurred between the computer and the television screen. MSNBC—Microsoft and NBC—started by assuming the convergence was there. They tried to create shows that were sort of hybrids between television and the Internet. It failed. They tried something similar in Seattle. That didn’t work either.

I bet on the fact that television was still the dominant media—and that the Internet was kind of a junior partner at that time—because there was no way to monetize the Internet. Therefore, to create it as 50 percent of your business model seemed to me not a wise move. Since then, of course, Fox News has been tremendously successful financially and MSNBC has not.

That said, today there’s much more convergence than there used to be, and much more use of the Internet in moving information and news. However, the Pew [Research Center] recently did a study, and it determined that the dominant source of news to most Americans is still television. The Internet is having impact, particularly with younger people, and it has to be assumed that [this influence] will continue. People are exploring ways where technology can move news directly from the newsroom to mobile devices. Going forward, we expect [that] a lot of Fox News will be consumed on mobile devices, skipping the desktop and perhaps the iPad.

We believe there’s an audience shift. Younger people are not necessarily going to sit in front of a television set. I have a 13-year-old son. He rarely sits in front of a television set; and when he does, it’s to play a DVD or order up a show that he wants. I suspect he’ll never just sit down and watch TV, as my generation did.

Bewkes is right: Everybody in the business is looking at the shifting of audiences and shifting of platforms and shifting of usage. But everybody won’t be 22 forever. Giving up your core business in search of a phantom audience is not wise. You have to try to program to that audience and bring them in and get them loyal to your brand. If they like your brand, they’ll watch it on a mobile, on their iPad or whatever.

How is your brand doing amongst this group?

Most news consumption in America is consumed for those older than 50. Those 30 and younger tend to see news differently. What did Lindsay Lohan wear to her latest hearing? This is news to some. So, TMZ, a kind of fast-paced celebrity-type show, would appeal to some of that audience. And if you don’t incorporate that in your coverage in addition to the Middle East, you probably are going to miss part of that audience.

Our education system, of course, doesn’t teach civics. It propagandizes current events for political purposes, so creating curiosity among the young about actual news events is a challenge. People in my industry should spend as much time with students as they can. I’ve spoken to students at West Point, talked with journalism students in North Carolina, pointing out, for example, that Lindsay Lohan’s dress is not as important as the Middle East.