Fox Faces Its Uncertain Future: The Minor Murdochs Take Command

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Here’s an interesting headline for you: “Fox seeks to extend cable news domination in post-Ailes era.” Recalling the storm that has engulfed Fox News—the Gretchen Carlson sex-harassment lawsuit and other allegations, including from Megyn “Eve Harrington” Kelly, that precipitated the sudden departure of founder Roger Ailes—one might immediately ask: Why this headline appearing in The Hill on July 31? Could Fox sources be getting a little bit nervous?

Here’s a data point that might help answer those questions: In the fierce competition that is cable news, Fox came in third last week, behind both CNN and MSNBC. Some will say, of course, that the decline is just a blip, because the big story last week was the Democratic National Convention, and the Fox audience wasn’t really interested.

Maybe that’s the explanation, but maybe not. The Republican nominee traditionally goes on vacation during the DNC; Donald Trump is anything but traditional—last week, he was all over the news. So there was plenty for Fox fans to watch, even if Hillary & Co. made them nauseous. And yet the Fox audience just wasn’t there; as TV Newser’s A.J. Katz points out, Fox fell relative to the 2008 Democratic convention—including in the key 25-54 demographic:

CNN had the most viewers, MSNBC was up the most, and only Fox News didn’t add viewers. The news demo was flat vs. 2008. CNN was most-watched (and was also the No. 1 cable news network of the month in the demo), MSNBC showed the most improvement, and Fox News saw a -17 percent decline.

Ouch! A 17 percent decline is, for sure, painful. So yes, this would seem to be a strange time to see a header, “Fox seeks to extend cable news domination.” The immediate response is, what domination?

We can further ask: Can you say the word “defensive’? And what’s that line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Oh yeah, “The lady doth protest too much.”

It’s true, of course, that Fox has dominated cable news for the last 15 years, under the steady hand of Roger Ailes. Indeed, for all that time, with just a few exceptions, it’s been #1 in the ratings. But Ailes isn’t there anymore—he was fired last month in a rush-to-judgment hurry.

Without a doubt, Fox is a valuable asset. As the article in The Hill, written by savvy media analyst Joe Concha, noted:

Research firm SNL Kagan estimates Fox News generated $2.3 billion in ad sales alone last year. Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser says the operating profit for Fox News was $1.6 billion in fiscal 2015. That’s nearly 25 percent of 21st Century Fox’s overall operating profit.

Indeed, at a time when parent company 21st Century Fox is reeling from a string of movie disappointments and outright bombs—do you know anybody who saw the hugely expensive Independence Day: Resurgence?—this surely is a good time for 21CF chieftains to see a pick-me-up headline such as “Fox seeks to extend cable news domination.”

But here is the Breitbart News Rule #1 for headlines: It helps the story if the headline is true.

Obviously, in the past, Fox has done it all—in the past. It has covered the news, and it has created stars: Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren, and, more recently, Megyn Kelly—although her star, at least at Fox, is fading fast.

In addition, as everyone knows, Fox’s secret sauce has been “fair and balanced”—it was the one TV channel that right-of-center Americans trusted.

Yet nothing is permanent. As they say in sports, You’re only as good as your last game. And so, too, in TV: You’re only as good as your last show.

With that in mind, a couple of excerpts from The Hill article beg for our attention.

Such as this one, which bids to tell us that nothing can stop Fox’s continued “domination”:

“At this point Fox News is such a fine-tuned and well-oiled machine, I think even Mickey Mouse could step in and keep it running,” says Doug Spero, associate professor of communication at Meredith College and TV veteran who includes ABC, CBS and NBC on his resume. [emphasis added]

So there you have it: Even Mickey Mouse could replace Ailes at Fox and the channel would do just fine! Well, if you believe that, you don’t understand the complexity—and simple grind—of 24-hour news.

As the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News with a long run in business and finance, I can tell you: It’s hard to run a company that is infinitesimally smaller than Fox; it takes a steady and experienced hand. One needn’t endorse today’s pay scales—many CEOs are outrageously overpaid—to nonetheless recognize that strong and steady management is worth a lot.

After all, a business can be going along fine, and then—BOOM!—it hits a iceberg and you start flooding below the waterline. It can happen, and it does happen. Remember Circuit City? Bear Stearns? Lehman Brothers? Sports Authority? Once, all were billion-dollar companies—then gone in a moment. The fatal problem might be fraud or corruption, but more often, it’s simply that management didn’t see “over the other side of the hill.” Tastes, demographics, technology all change–rapidly and without warning–and so if the captain isn’t on watch, well, nemesis is dead ahead.

Here at Breitbart Newswe see ourselves as a small yet up-and-coming competitor to Fox. Yes, you read that right, Breitbart is on the rise, and Fox is in decline. Even the MSM has noticed the changing of the guard; here’s the Washington Post headline from January: “How Breitbart has become a dominant voice in conservative media,” reinforced by Politico just this morning. In this modern-day version of the epic Peloponnesian War, the incumbent Athenians might as well know that the Spartans are coming for them, and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it; indeed, more Spartans are joining us every day. As Thucydides would warn them, if the leaders of Fox choose to pipe Mickey Mouse aboard and give him command on the bridge, well, that will only accelerate Fox’s fall.

Of course, some might argue that the “Mickey Mouse” quote was just a poor choice of words by a professor, and not at all reflective of 21 CF thinking. Perhaps, although it’s worth noting that The Hill (as in DC’s Capitol Hill) isn’t just another inside-the-Beltway publication. In fact, it is owned by the Finkelstein family of New York City, members in good standing of the Manhattan plutocracy. Which is to say, the Finkelsteins travel in the same jetstream as the big cheeses at 21 CF. Moreover, the writer of the piece, Joe Concha, was formerly a star at Mediaite, the agenda-setting media portal; he’s been hired to give The Hill some Manhattan-level buzz.

In any case, Concha also wrote the paragraph below, which goes deeply inside the heads of the new Fox high command. Specifically, Concha opens a window into the thinking of James and Lachlan Murdoch, the two 40-something brothers who have effectively taken over from their 85-year-old father, Rupert Murdoch. These two heirs were the duo that made Ailes walk the plank. Per Concha, here’s a glimpse of the future of Fox:

Sky News in Britain, which is also operated by the Murdochs, doesn’t have the edge of Fox News in the United States. If there is a change, Shepard says it will be a sign that “the Murdoch sons want to put their stamp on the company by importing practices from Sky News in Britain.”

We can all parse over the phrase “doesn’t have the edge of Fox News,” but to me, the meaning is clear: The Murdoch sons, aka the Minor Murdochs, think Fox is too conservative, too Roger Ailes-like, too Middle American. And they have a plan to fix that.

Indeed, the outlines of that plan are already plain to see. Just in the last few weeks, I have written about the Minor Murdochs, noting their antipathy to Roger Ailes, as well as their politically correct liberalism.

And since then, the problems at Fox, in addition to its recent plummet in the ratings, have only compounded. Here are three:

First, on his July 22 newscast, Shepard Smith declared, inaccurately, about the Munich mass murderer: “This does not appear to be an ISIS-related attack; this does not appear to be Islamic. This appears to be neo-Nazi-style right-wing German issues.” In fact, the killer was a jihadist, one of the many allahuakbar-types rampaging through Europe. And yes, everyone makes mistakes, but authoritative anchors aren’t supposed to make mistakes that egregious. Indeed, Smith, who is known to be a liberal, has long been all too eager to add a little spite against the right.

Second, Bill O’Reilly said on July 26 that the slaves who built the White House were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.” This son of Richmond, Virginia, might be inclined to cut O’Reilly some slack over inept wording about the unlamented “peculiar institution,” but others might not. That is, Al Sharpton, David Brock, and the #BlackLivesMatter bullhorn crowd might be thinking more along the lines of protests, petitions, and boycotts.

Third, Megyn Kelly’s July 29 hissy fit aimed at guest Mike Huckabee, which Breitbart headlined as “Megyn ‘Eve’ Kelly Has Meltdown Over Trump Muslim Ban—Is Rebuked By Huckabee.” Actually, come to think of it, Kelly’s performance was more like a hissing fit. Huckabee, always the gentleman, had no choice but to sit back and let Kelly’s venom-spittle fly. Yet in homes across the nation, people are noticing Kelly’s transformation into an all-out anti-conservative, seeing it as part of a larger shift at the channel. One Breitbart commenter, “poortaxpayerwindsor,” put it bluntly: “Fox is the new MSNBC.”

Some will insist, of course, that all three of these problems are relatively small—at least so far. Yet at the same time, all three require executive attention. It’s known as “putting out fires,” and a good skipper puts out many each day. And if I were a 21 CF shareholder, I would want more than Mickey Mouse dealing with each problem.

Okay, so the Minor Murdochs probably won’t replace Ailes with Mickey. But what is on their mind? What’s their definition of “Fox without the edge”?

For some hints, we can take a close look at some recent MSM journalism.

Writing in The Washington Post on July 20, reporters Ana Swanson and Steven Mufson tell us that not only is James Murdoch a progressive green, but so is his wife, Kathryn:

James has long had an interest in global warming and measures needed to stop it. He sought to make BSkyB, one part of Murdoch’s European operations, carbon-neutral. And his wife, Kathryn, sits on the board of the Environmental Defense Fund; she is also president of the Quadrivium Foundation, which focuses on natural resources, “civic life, childhood health and equal opportunity.”

Moreover, Nick O’Malley of The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2015 that James’ wife worked for the Clinton Climate Initiative, a unit of the Clinton Foundation. That is, right in the belly of the left-wing beast.

Finally, on July 20, Michael Wolff, who wrote a biography of Rupert and still follows the Murdoch clan closely, took to The Hollywood Reporter to describe the anti-Ailes operation as a planned hit-job. Wolff identified James Murdoch as the lead hit-man; he indirectly quoted him as saying that since the 76-year-old Ailes couldn’t stay in the job that much longer anyway, “Why not turn lemons into lemonade and get credit for kicking him out for being a sexist pig?”

So there we have it: The Fox News job probably won’t be turned over to a mouse, but it certainly won’t be turned over to a sexist pig. But in James’ mind, a green would be good.

Of course, if the Minor Murdochs are smart, they could surprise all of us by hiring a real conservative to replace Ailes. And if that person knows something about television, Fox could remain The Most Powerful Name in News.

But those are two big “ifs.” Until then, the Spartans will continue to sharpen their blades.


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