The Secrets of Fox's Success
How Roger Ailes’ game plan created Fox’s cable domination
By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (email@example.com) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
Remember the CNN Effect? Back when the first cable news network had the field to itself, scholars used to argue about its impact on foreign policy. Some said that CNN's 24/7 coverage forced the U.S. government to act too quickly in response to graphic TV images and public pressure. How high-minded that seems in a cable news world that's now under the influence of the Fox News Effect.
Fox News Channel's impact on TV news has been so pervasive and profound that it's hard to believe the network is only 10 years old. FNC's flashy graphics, frenetic pace and opinionated hosts have spawned imitators across the spectrum. Compare CNN's Lou Dobbs today — with his on-camera rants about immigration and outsourcing — to the staid Dobbs who anchored the old "Moneyline," and it's obvious he's been "Foxified." Check out MSNBC's multilayered graphics, complete with scrolling text and whooshing sound effects, and the Fox imprint is clear.
None of that seemed likely when FNC launched. CNN was well established, and two-month-old MSNBC was seen as the comer, with its corporate backing and established news pedigree. CNN's Ted Turner boasted that he'd squash Fox News "like a bug." Even the head of Fox News admits it started way behind. "We had no newsgathering operation..no studios, no equipment, no employees, no stars, no talent and no confidence from anybody," Roger Ailes is quoted as saying in Scott Collins' book, "Crazy Like a Fox."
But the new channel did have two things the other guys lacked: a target audience and a visionary leader. Ailes, a former political consultant for Republican candidates, knew exactly what he wanted Fox to be, and it definitely wasn't a clone of the other two. While planning the new channel, he claims to have watched CNN for a solid week and found it excruciatingly boring.
What Ailes created was a channel with a clear identity and plenty of attitude, aimed directly at viewers fed up with what he calls the liberal slant of the mainstream media. While his competitors stuck to a broadcast model and tried to appeal to the widest possible audience, Fox found its niche by narrowcasting to viewers who wanted news from a particular perspective.
Four years later, a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism documented the obvious: Fox had a much larger percentage of Republican viewers than the other two cable networks. It also had more viewers, period. Fox's ratings have declined a bit this year, but its average daily viewership is often bigger than CNN's and MSNBC's combined.
In some ways, Fox is more a throwback than an innovation, bringing to mind the partisan press of the late 19th century. Fox may call itself "fair and balanced," but it's not hard to find a conservative tilt to what detractors call "Faux" News. A report on the congressional page scandal carried this on-screen banner: "GOP fighting back against Foley scandal hysteria," while disgraced Republican congressman Mark Foley was misidentified more than once as "D-FL."
Still, FNC's popularity isn't all about politics. From the beginning, it had more personality and pizazz than the competition. "Fox is doing the tango while CNN and MSNBC are waltzing," MSNBC's then-President Erik Sorenson told USA Today in 2003. "We're doing a beautiful waltz, but the tango is the dance of the day."
Now, it seems, everybody's doing the tango, and not just on cable. Headline tickers have become a staple on television newscasts across the country, while local anchors mangle verbs just like Fox's Shepard Smith. Opinion is in again, even at CBS. One of the voices sounding off in the network's new "Free Speech" segment is former evening news anchor Bob Schieffer. On Sundays, he's the evenhanded host of "Face the Nation," but on Wednesdays he speaks his liberal mind.
CBS used to have strict rules against that sort of thing. "The expression of editorial viewpoints by [CBS News] personnel..is prohibited," the network's news standards manual stated in 1976. Back then no one could have imagined how different television news would be today. No one, that is, except Paddy Chayefsky.
Thirty years ago, his brilliant screenplay for the movie "Network" was a satire. Today it seems almost prophetic. News as a profit center. Infotainment masquerading as news. An anchor ranting on the air. What seemed shocking and outlandish back then is now commonplace. Somehow it's not hard to envision Bill O'Reilly as the heir of fictional anchor Howard Beale, who told his audience, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
Fox's critics would like to believe that its days of dominance are numbered, pointing to an aging audience and the lagging performance of Fox News online. But that's wishful thinking, at least in the short term. Fox has a leg up in the cable TV news game because it rewrote the rules. The other channels have stolen parts of its playbook, but they lack the coherent game plan that keeps Fox in front.