Fox News Exec Jay Wallace Gets Candid About Ratings, White House Access (Q&A)

Jay Wallace - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of FOX News

The rarely interviewed news-side boss is key to the network's success, despite a year of contentious personnel changes and lineup tinkering.

Once again, Fox News Channel was the king of cable news ratings in 2017, ahead of both CNN and MSNBC in primetime (2.4 million viewers) and total day (1.5 million viewers). President of news Jay Wallace, who oversees the network's news programming and has been with Fox News since the beginning, is one of the understated reasons why.

Before heading out on a Jamaican beach vacation with his family, Wallace chatted with The Hollywood Reporter about the year that was. The conversation touched on the lingering (growing?) tensions between the network's news-side anchors and the opinion hosts, the future of Fox News Channel in a smaller 21st Century Fox, and the cable news competition.

Even during the holidays, Wallace said that people can't stop talking about Donald Trump. "If you go anywhere, it's all people talk about," he said. "There's no taking a break from it, or turning it off." Wallace said that people in his Park Slope neighborhood are "displeased" with what Trump is doing, but that people in his native New Hampshire feel differently.

This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.

You've created several new shows and extended original news coverage into the 11 p.m. hour with Shannon Bream's live news show. Has that worked out so far in terms of ratings and other measures?

You know, it has. In terms of ratings, you try not to get too obsessed with that. It usually takes a show a few months if not up to a year to figure out its groove. But I feel very good about having an hour of hard news at the end of the night.... Especially with how everything has changed, even just the way news breaks.... News no longer is broken just for the 6:30 p.m. newscast, the national newscast. 

What do you attribute this year's ratings success to? How much do you make of it?

Part of it is the talent that we have on the screen. Another part that I think people sort of forget about is: there is a lot of creativity to what we do. Whether it's the graphics or the people or the people we put in the field, there is a continuity to it. And once we get from Fox & Friends to the hard news at 9 a.m., we do have people who are trusted, and a lot of these people feel like they're part of their family. And there is sort of familiarity to what we have, and we've been very good about tweaking our lineup when we think there's a reason to do more, do less, whatever — we go with our gut.

Do you think that the gap between the news side and the opinion side is growing? You've got the news anchors like Bret Baier and Chris Wallace clamoring for Trump interviews that their opinion colleagues have been easily getting. Neil Cavuto has said he has no interest in interviewing Trump. And, you had Shepard Smith taking down the Uranium One story that the primetime opinion hosts like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have been covering closely.

Look, I think people want to say that there is, and sure — the thing about these shows and these individuals that you just cited, they're all super smart people. And they're very passionate about what they do. For me, and I speak with Chris, I speak with all of them, and Bret and Neil, and I get Neil's reason for not wanting to go after an interview, and I understand why Chris wants to, and why Bret would want to. And one thing we always try to remind people, and the good thing about this place, as much as people want to try to pit news versus opinion, this place was built on doing both. The marketplace lacked that, so people have grown up with a respect for each side.

All of the cable networks seems to face this question about drawing the line between news and opinion, though maybe Fox News gets asked it more than the others.

Even yesterday, I was reading through the Times, and I saw an ad for MSNBC that pictures everyone on their roster, calling them all "journalists." And, again — CNN the same. Where I do feel like we've always, from day one, while some of the opinion people have changed over the years, we have always said there is — this is opinion.... We have really stuck to a formula of having great journalists on the field..., but alongside people like Hannity, Laura [Ingraham] now, Tucker.... There's constant incoming on it, but I do feel like we've never shied away from it. We've always said that we have strong opinion and strong news. And, again, I think that's part of the success. You know what you're getting.

How has the Fox News formula changed? You've added several female hosts recently, including Dana Perino (The Daily Briefing) and Harris Faulkner (Outnumbered Overtime). Is giving more shows to women one of the ways you're evolving the Fox formula? What are some other things you're doing?

I think there's a natural evolution of what we've been good at. I don't think we went out and said, "Oh, we want to have more women on the air." But Dana was someone — Dana came from the White House, Dana is super smart. Well-read, well thought of.... It's really been a natural fit. And with Harris, Outnumbered became this sort of tentpole in the middle of the day. It's been four years. Originally, the show was supposed to be a bit more about culture. And in the end it just became a news show, a hard news show, especially with [Sandra Smith] and Harris. And, again, the news cycle has dictated that, "Ok, that's a show that we could see more of." And Harris was someone who — she has very good breaking news chops, and is a great newsperson. So it became sort of a natural way to do an hour with her there.

One more opinion versus news-side question. While the news hosts are still clamoring for a Trump interview, Laura Ingraham got one very quickly. Has there ever been a conversation about the opinion hosts potentially lobbying for their news-side colleagues with the White House? Rupert Murdoch reportedly talks to Trump all the time. There are people at Fox News who are plugged in with the administration. Can they make the ask?

No. The issue here — these shows, and when you're dealing with very strong talent like these guys, it is sort of a free market. And, if Laura, as someone who has been a strong opinion person and has been connected to candidates, or she has her connections. If she's able to get a Trump interview, that's her show, and that's up to her. Look, I can see the White House is doing what they think their best place is. Good for them. But, on the other hand, Bret and Chris will continue to fight to get their interviews. But, there really is no...these shows really, they run in an individual way in many ways, as do the talent. So, we don't sit there and try to influence one and say, "Hey, if you're getting that there, in opinion, can you help us with something?' It's really up to the show. News does its side, and opinion does its side. Would we like to get one? Sure. But, again, I'm not going to have opinion change anything that they're doing, and if that's where the administration's going, that's their prerogative.

Does it actually help the Fox News brand that some of the talent is sort of peeved with the White House for not giving them access? Does it prove that the network isn't really a monolith in the way some critics think it is?

Yes. Look, I'm fine with it. Like, if he thinks that the news side is going to be too tough, or, that's our job as journalists. And I would say this for any president: they're going to do what they want to do. And that's what their communications team is there for. On the news side, sure, we'd love to have an interview, but if he thinks that we're going to be too tough, OK, fine.... We keep putting in the requests.

On the other hand, I think we've been very respectful of this president — just as the office of the presidency. Where I'm not sure, where I think people have definitely in the media have gotten, or are sort of losing their minds at times over this president, and coming out of their lanes as journalists in treating the presidency with a certain amount of respect. I think there have been some lines crossed, but on the other hand, I do feel like we're really on the news side, we're respecting the office and will continue to do so. And if we do get that interview, we're going to ask the tough questions that we'd ask of anyone. 

Do you think CNN and MSNBC have gone too far, in terms of their respect or lack of respect for the president?

I don't even want to get into — I don't even want to do broad strokes of networks. Because networks are made up of individual show hosts, anchors, journalists. But, I think it's pretty well-documented that at times people have reacted differently to this president than any other president we've seen in modern times. So, I think that's a fair statement. And, obviously, cable news has changed lots of things. And, again, we're evolving, everyone's evolving, so I don't want to call anyone out on it. But, there has been definitely a change in tone in covering this president versus other presidents, in my opinion.

I'm not trying to fan the flames or stoke competition between the cable networks.

Look, I respect what everyone does, and there's a reason the country — the reason why this place was founded was because, and why it's done so well, is because news in many ways was generic, and there wasn't a choice. There was a marketplace for news with an opinion wing. With an opinion arm, I should say. We went and we found that space, and it's been good. Look at MSNBC. MSNBC originally started out not really even covering the news, and not being so political, and they've found their footing. Again, I think having these networks, it is healthy, so I wouldn't want to go in and judge, but this is what healthy democracies have. They have great newspapers with great editorials and news networks. So, hope you understand, I just don't want to go in on the other ones, but it's great that we all exist. 

To end with some forward-looking questions, how do you see the future of Fox News, particularly following the close of Disney's acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox? Do you expect to get more resources? More attention? Less attention? Or do you think things will stay the same?

Depending on what happens with the deal, I guess we would be part of a smaller version. We've had very good ratings, we've had very good growth. We've been a very conscientious business not to overexpand, so I would imagine there'll be definitely more eyes on us and what we do and how we operate as a business. Now we're 21, about to be in our 22nd year as a business. So, with that, you always have to manage costs and be smart, and we've always been good about that.... Digital was something that was not a priority at Fox News until the past year and a half or so, and we are in the process of beefing up that staff. And even just technically, we were dealing with some very old tools. Whether it's the app, or whether it's our content management system. We have taken a look at all of that, and we are re-investing in that. 

Who do you think will be running Fox News in a few years?

Right now, it's Rupert. Rupert cares immensely about this place, and Suzanne [Scott], Jack [Abernethy] and I are working with him, day in and day out, and we have some great new executives that we brought in over the past year and a half. So, we have a really good team. You know, we're moving into a new newsroom next month, and we're building new studios and new space within the building, so our job is to keep it going and keep it going for the viewers and for the people who work hard here who have been here a long time.