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

When Time magazine polled 9,000 people, 44 percent said Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart was the most trustworthy source of news. Given that trust is the cornerstone of your business and your brand, how do you convert this segment of the population from satire with an agenda to your brand? Or maybe you feel you don’t have to.

The problem with answers to questions like that is that it’s a hip answer. If they know their friends watch Jon Stewart, that’s how they’re going to respond to that question. Whether or not that’s actual news consumption, I’m not sure. It is comedy; and when I was young, all I wanted to do was laugh, too.

But the reality is: to watch Jon Stewart, you already have to have watched the news. In other words, it’s not funny if he does a joke about John McCain and they don’t know who John McCain is. I’m always curious about people when they tell me that they listen to Dennis Miller or Jon Stewart or whoever, and [they] act as if they’re reading a newscast. They know damn well they’re not reading a newscast. They know that they’ve already consumed some information elsewhere.

One of the reasons young people like Jon Stewart is because their parents don’t. Anything to stick it to their parents. Their parents are probably watching Fox News. They’re thinking Jon Stewart makes fun of Fox News; so, therefore, I’m not going to watch that. They watch him because he’s a renegade and partly because he’s funny. I watch Jon Stewart. I think he’s funny.

I have a running dialogue with Jon Stewart. He once told me he’s a socialist and would have voted for Norman Thomas, who was the greatest socialist of the 1950s. [Thomas was a Presbyterian minister, who achieved fame as a socialist, pacifist, and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.] I told him: “I’ll tell when you are a capitalist, Jon. On the day you have to renegotiate your own contract. My guess is you will really go for the money then.” He laughed.

A federal appeals court recently ruled that [Barry Diller’s IAC-owned] Aereo’s TV anywhere service, doesn’t violate copyright law. And in April of this year, News Corp president Chase Carey said, “If you can’t have our rights properly protected through legal and political avenues, we’ll pursue business solutions.” One such solution is to turn the network into a subscription service. Two questions: One, does Aereo represent disruptive innovation or piracy, as you see it? And two, do you believe people are willing to pay for a Fox News channel?

Yes, people will pay for the Fox News channel—despite the fact that the general feeling, one created by the Internet, is that everything should be free. I don’t want to speak for Chase Carey or our company and [I want] to stay clear of strategic conversations; but my personal view is that the work of creative artists of any kind should be paid, whether it’s a songwriter or a show writer. So, I don’t want to comment on inflammatory words like “piracy,” but I have worked with creative people for 40 years and believe their work should be protected. One could argue that Google’s business plan is to resell everybody’s work. Simple. Can [you] put it on one page? Now, that’s a great philosophical discussion for some university to study. Is that moral, immoral or amoral? Or does it matter?

Do you have any countermoves up your sleeve that may disrupt the disrupters like Aereo or others?

I wouldn’t say it’s above my pay grade, but it’s not my focus. It’s the focus of lawyers and financial executives and people here at the company. My job is to run Fox News, beat everybody who’s in the cable news business and run television stations and try to beat everybody in the television business. Running two cable networks and 28 television stations actually takes most of my time.

Can you describe what the cable news industry and Fox News, in particular, might look like in 2016 when your current contract comes to an end?

I’ll try to answer your question without giving away certain strategies I have in mind because I don’t particularly want to help CNN and MSNBC, even though they need it. I don’t want to give them my ideas. The days of people sitting around waiting for a news show, with somebody putting a box behind an anchor’s head are over. We will see some changes in the way we do television news in the next few years. For example, we’ll see an integration of digital platforms and social media. The social media problem becomes one of verification, because you could easily put things up that are not real news. There’s a lot of false news in that genre, but it also is a way people communicate.

Social media has been very helpful to us, in Iran, for instance, or in places where you can’t put your camera crew. So, I foresee a wider use of what I call “pocket news.” What once required a bureau of 10,000 people or 10,000 square feet now becomes a guy with something in his pocket. That’s your “bureau” at any given time. Beyond this, I don’t want to predict too much, because I’m trying to figure out how to do it myself in order to be able to take my competitors out.