Gretchen Carlson Settlement Could Launch Repositioning of Fox News

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Gretchen Carlson

"This is an opportunity to prepare the programming, the talent, for [the future]."

Greta Van Susteren's abrupt exit from Fox News, the same day parent company 21st Century Fox announced a $20 million settlement with Gretchen Carlson, may be just the first major on-air change triggered by the ouster in July of Roger Ailes.

Van Susteren's contract included a key man clause that allowed her to leave if Ailes were no longer in charge. The anchor alluded to the clause in a Facebook post on Tuesday when she noted that "the clause had a time limitation, meaning I could not wait."

One source close to the situation attributed Van Susteren's exit to a "financial disagreement." And other sources say she attempted to renegotiate her contract and invoked the clause when the talks went south. But Van Susteren's husband, lawyer John Coale, said in an interview with The New York Times: "There's so much chaos, it's very hard to work there." And Van Susteren echoed that point when she posted an explanation on Facebook: "The place just didn't feel like home anymore."

In another interview with CNN on Tuesday, Coale predicted "possible litigation in the future" between Van Susteren and Fox, but declined to elaborate.

But will there be more big-name departures from the news network? Van Susteren was among several Fox News anchors that had the clause in their deals. Others include Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Geraldo Rivera and Bret Baier. 

There was a window during which Van Susteren could exercise the clause. And presumably others had similar windows. However, insiders do not expect other anchors to defect. Megyn Kelly, who told investigators she was the recipient of unwanted sexual advances from Ailes in 2006, when she was relatively new to the network, is in the midst of a contract renegotiation. Though she could certainly field a bevy of other offers, many observers expect her to stay. "Who is going to pay her what Fox News will pay her to stay?" asks one.

Van Susteren's departure caught many inside Fox News by surprise. Brit Hume, who will anchor the 7 p.m. hour previously occupied by Van Susteren through the election, quoted those words in his closing remarks on Tuesday night.

"I count Greta a friend and I'm sorry to see her go," said Hume. "All of us here certainly wish her well. She made a big contribution and we will miss her."

But the reaction to Carlson's settlement was mixed. Many staffers want to put the saga behind them as they focus on an unprecedented presidential election cycle. "Everyone is ready to move on," said one.

Nevertheless, there is still a sense of unease inside Fox News; it's the overriding reason Rupert Murdoch put veteran executives Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy in charge at co-presidents of the network while the Murdochs cast a wider net for a permanent CEO.

And observers note that the crisis has given Rupert Murdoch's sons, James and Lachlan, installed last year as CEO and executive chairman, respectively, of 21st Century Fox, an opportunity position Fox News for the future.

"They have been insulated from the ravages of the news business because their viewers are so damn old," notes Gabe Kahn, a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communications and the former Los Angeles bureau chief of the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal

Still, Fox News Channel has been the most watched cable news network for an unprecedented 58 quarters and has been No. 1 in the 25-54 demographic critical to advertisers for more than 13 years. It's in part why Fox News is the top revenue generator for 21st Century Fox, funneling more than a $1 billion annually into the company's coffers. Averaging close to 2 million viewers each night, the network finished the second quarter as the No. 2 cable network in primetime, behind only TNT, which aired the NBA playoffs.

The younger Murdochs, adds Kahn, "are positioning Fox News beyond the cable dial, and this is the beginning of that change. They're going to have to write some more large checks. But this is an opportunity to prepare the programming, the talent, for [the future]." 

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