Roger Ailes is arguably the most important television executive of his generation. He built Fox News from scratch, and in doing so created a whole new model of what an aggressive, opinionated news network could look like. He threw red meat to red-state America, and red-state America loved it, becoming devoted to Fox News in a way that had previously been unthinkable in journalism.
Roger Ailes is also a man with a huge amount of history and baggage. He’s old, for starters: born in 1940, he was nominated for an Emmy in 1968, almost 50 years ago, and by the end of the 1960s had already been instrumental in reinventing Richard Nixon for the television era. If you look at the sexual harassment complaints against him, a lot of them date back decades.
Ailes' departure, then, is in many ways the departure of a dinosaur. His status as a power broker within the Republican Party is also a thing of the past: Fox News was caught flat-footed by the rise of the Tea Party, and then of Donald Trump. There are even rumors that if and when Trump loses the election, he will start up his own television network to capitalize on Fox’s evident weakness.
Ailes was clearly the right person to make Fox News what it is today, but he was never quite as convincing in the role of the man who could successfully navigate its transition to new realities, let alone reach a younger audience that increasingly doesn’t watch television at all. Indeed, while he certainly didn’t leave on the kind of terms that he or his bosses would ever have wanted or anticipated, it’s quite likely that his Murdoch bosses are feeling quite positive right now about what an Ailes-free Fox News might look like.
After all, Fox News brings in $1 billion a year in profit, and it’s never a good idea for a business that big to be run as the personal fief of someone who isn’t the owner. As control of Fox moves from Rupert Murdoch to his sons, it only makes sense that the Fox News sensibility should also undergo a generational shift.
As the story of National Geographic shows, Fox is no longer the redoubt of paleoconservatives like Ailes. The Murdoch sons are younger, more broad-minded and pragmatic. They know that the Fox News Ailes founded in 1996 is not a Fox News that works in 2016, but they were also well aware that they had almost no ability to tell Ailes how to run his shop. By installing a more conventional management structure, they have the opportunity take a successful and profitable business and help it to evolve in a way that was impossible while Ailes still held the tiller.
The good news, for the Murdochs, is that Fox News is a cash cow and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. It is on every cable line-up in the country, and all those cable channels pay handsomely for the privilege of having it, whatever the ratings might be. That gives the company a lot of time to navigate a bumpy transition from the Ailes era.
When Ailes leaves, his loyalists will follow, including some anchors; there will be lots of internal power struggles; it will be hard for Fox News to clearly define a new identity for itself. But all of these things were certain to happen sooner or later, and from the Murdochs’ point of view, it’s surely better for them to happen now, rather than after many more years of Fox News continuing a slow decline into ever-greater irrelevance.
Ailes’s greatest legacy is the Fox News brand, a brand he invented and which is worth billions. That brand remains a secure and hugely valuable part of the Murdoch empire, recognized and trusted by millions of Americans. It’s time for the management of that brand to be handed over to someone new, someone without Ailes’ baggage, someone who understands that the glory days, when Fox News could create and define the presidency of George W. Bush, are never coming back.
America is an angrier, weirder, less predictable country now than it was in 1996, and conservative Americans are likewise not the Republicans Ailes grew up with. He was never the right person to capture the sentiment that propelled Donald Trump to the Republican nomination, and which has torn the Republican Party apart.
Roger Ailes was by no means the only right-wing media visionary in America. Others, like Andrew Breitbart and Matt Drudge, were also able to carve out lasting franchises. What’s more, Ailes’s health has not been good in recent years, and the Murdochs surely had a plan in place for what would happen if he were suddenly incapacitated. They’ve thought this through. They’re ready.
Which means that Fox News is facing a new dawn. Now, it can finally start to emerge from the long shadow of its founder, and become newly relevant again.