O'Reilly's banished. Ailes is plotting something somewhere. And Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson enjoy, or plan to, the air elsewhere. It must be time to reposition Fox News, right?
Why, it only makes sense. When an 86-year-old still commands the channel that commands the oldest viewership in cable news, the creaking of the channel just gets louder. And with each moan, pundits will increasingly cry out: "Re-position." Re-positioning, though, is not the way of the Murdochs. Stake out a position -- with The Sun, The Times of London, Sky TV, The Wall Street Journal or Fox News, the last launched to a roomful of chortles at the "Fair and Balanced" "positioning" in 1986 -- and stick to it.
Re-positioning, though, is something else. And it makes sense. Why mess with a money-and-power machine that continues to pay out? We can track the expectations of a Fox News repositioning back at least six years, and the topic has arisen through the channel's contretemps. It's easy to point out, as I did last summer when Fox News CEO Ailes found himself on the wrong side of the Fox door, that Fox News' aging audience is a cause for concern. Bill O'Reilly himself, an apparently a bit too spry 67-year-old, appealed to his elders, with an audience averaging 72. Overall, Fox News has enjoyed, emphasis intended, the oldest audience in cable news, at 68, seven years older than CNN and five older than MSNBC.
As I pointed out a year ago ["What really ails Fox"] as Ailes got his $40 million soft kick to retirement, cable news seems to be an artifact of another age, given the average age of its readers. And while we increasingly turn to the web for breaking news, those large, HD, flat-screens still fascinate us. While as much as 25% of prime-time entertainment viewing has time-shifted to DVRs, according to Comscore, only about 10% of news has. News is news, and for now -- in this unprecedented political time -- the cable news business is a great one to be in. Maybe, by 2020, it'll be more profoundly digital, but for now, there's money to take in by the rake.
Fox News' audience leadership has satisfied advertisers for a long time. From Hulu to Hyundai and Coldwell Banker to Credit Karma, they stuck with O'Reilly, until they couldn't.
Undoubtedly, those empowered by O'Reilly's departure will press for more changes at Fox News, but if history is any guide, those advertisers will return, happy to pinch those rosy cheeks of Tucker Carlson. Will those 80 advertisers who spent $35 million on Factor ads in 2016 demand Fox News itself change? That seems unlikely.
Mercedes-Benz, leading the Factor parade with $1.34 million in spend, still sees lots of willing buyers on FNC. Of course, the course of the country and its media have never been tougher to predict. Who would think that Bill O'Reilly and Jason Chaffetz would bid adieu on the same day, even as the 100th day of the Trump Imperium awaits? America's colorful changes apparently cut both ways.
Certainly, it is the ratings that could lower Fox's financial take. However, that will take time to become a new reality, even as a re-energized CNN and an Andy Lack-repositioning MSNBC (still time for a new rebrand) up their game.
TV spending doesn't usually move too quickly, and Fox's audience is likely to test out the newbies -- Tucker Carlson moving into O'Reilly's spot and The Five moving into Carlson. Not until the advertisers decide that they don't want to be associated with what passes for news at the country's most-watched cable "news" station. And that's not too likely to happen.
Will the changed faces make a big difference in those ratings? Maybe. O'Reilly's outsized personality delighted his elders. Overall, though, Fox watchers have bought that old "fair and balanced" positioning. Its alt-reality -- a partisan, divisive import of Rupert's from the U.K. where such news positioning has a long history -- still seems incredibly strong among a good third of the country, from which Fox viewers are drawn. I don't think we'll have long to wait for the victimization of O'Reilly meme to grow in our current "fake news" black-is-white, white-is-black reality.
For the Murdochs, it's just another bump in the road, and one that cash will likely repair.
Sticktoitiveness is part of their DNA.
It didn't apply to Ailes and O'Reilly, you say. Well it did, and it did, and it did, 'til it didn't. First principle: Family loyalty. It is the House of Murdoch that determines how much loyalty it will extend to those outside the family. Make no mistake. The Murdoch, patriarch and fils, extend lots of loyalty. In fact, to a fault, they have stuck with their chosen lieutenants often too long. Rupert gave his Dow Jones CEO Lex Fenwick appointee so much rope he choked off the Journal's impressive innovation run, a run it still seeks to re-start some three years later.
Whispers now grow louder that he's done the same thing in keeping Gerry Baker as the Journal's top editor for more than four years, given the Journal's newsroom Trump-related morale issues and high-level defections. When both Rebecca Blumenstein, now a New York Times deputy managing editor, and deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens, this week announced as a Times columnist, decamp the country's print conservative bastion, something's awry. Excessive loyalty is a pain in Rupert's Achilles.
At Fox, if history is any guide to Murdochian behavior, we've seen and probably will see a similar passion play as ones previously dramatized. The hiring of the attorneys -- serial sexual harassment "investigators" Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP should have a permanent office within Fox News -- followed by a twisting in the wind for a few days or weeks. Then, we'll have the promises to make sure it doesn't happen again -- and likely the retention of the top management, Ailes-bred and O-Reilly-protecting, that enables a work environment fitting of the 1950s culture of the president they helped elect.
There's no moral high ground here that should even be attempted. It's financial return, intertwined with the mix of political power that Murdoch still wields better than anyone else in media, that pushes the enterprise forward.
Fox News needs to be tidied up again, just as Hackgate and the Ailes affair were, so the family can move on to its bigger prizes.
On that horizon, mark one immediate and a bigger one possibly only a couple of years distant. Most immediately, the Murdochs seem likely to convince U.K. regulator Ofcom that its bad Hackgate deeds are such ancient history that 21st Century Fox should now be allowed to buy full control of Sky's extensive European TV business. Then, within two years, as the Federal Communication Commission undoes regulation after regulation, Fox could both be able increase its TV station holdings, and potentially buy newspapers in its TV station-owning cities.
And, what of O'Reilly. Give him time -- maybe a longer vacation -- and then he's ready for a reboot. There's a program, or maybe it's a movie sequel (Going in Style 2?) in there somewhere, reuniting Larry King, Dan Rather and Bill O'Reilly, and O'Reilly could be the young guy, the one with the ever-roaming eye.
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