Michael Wolff: Fox News Now Faces Sinclair and (Gasp!) Real Competition

Fox News Versus Sinclair - Illustration - H 2017
Illustration by Wren McDonald

With a deal for Tribune Media, the TV supergroup now has the national broadcast footprint to match Fox News' audience. Will it cleave off viewers?

For a generation, the single largest factor in cable news has been Fox News’ dominance of virtually every time slot. Other news networks existed almost solely as an inverse proposition to Fox. CNN, despite embarrassing ratings, continued to thrive because cable systems could not carry conservative Fox without mainstream CNN (paying a premium for it). MSNBC finally found its identity as a left-leaning pastiche to Fox.

But then Fox News was, suddenly, no longer Fox News. In less than a year, its founder and all-powerful leader, Roger Ailes, gone; its rising star, Megyn Kelly, gone; its reigning star, Bill O’Reilly, gone; its replacement leader, Ailes protégé Bill Shine, gone. Its second-most important star, Sean Hannity, according to insiders, hanging by a thread.

What’s more, 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch, now guiding the network’s fate, is openly contemptuous of Fox News’ politics and down-market cultural place. This is to cable news rather what the break-up of the Soviet Union was to geo-politics. All bets are off.

The hope of 21st Century Fox and its executive chairman, 86-year-old Rupert Murdoch, is that, even faced with a growing programming and identity crisis, Fox News’ audience will be slow to bolt. Where would it go? Even if Fox News becomes much less of a right-leaning news network, neither CNN nor MSNBC would necessarily seem to offer an alternative home to Fox News' older, whiter, more religious, not-urban, strongly Trump voters.

Indeed, part of the Fox News breakthrough formula, beyond the draw of its individual talent, is its club-like brand. Being a Fox News viewer defines you. At least that’s what nervous shareholders are being told. When ambushed Monday by a BBC reporter, who asked if he was worried, Rupert said, “Fox News is getting record ratings, so I’m not worried at all.” 

And yet, the network’s primetime numbers have always been built on O’Reilly’s huge draw at 8 p.m., with significant attrition from his ratings pinnacle afterwards. Kelly, for instance, in the 9 p.m. slot, reliably lost 400,000 to 800,000 O’Reilly viewers. O’Reilly set the network’s huge baseline, which the rest of the evening feasted on.

The 8 p.m. slot now features Tucker Carlson, charming, smart and libertarian (that is, not even dependably right wing), quite a looking-glass version of dark and truculent O’Reilly. At 9 p.m. is The Five, a quickly thrown together (and often incoherent) replacement hour. And then at 10 p.m., key to holding the primetime audience, there’s Hannity, close to both Ailes and Shine (Hannity has, in his time at Fox News, where he makes $14 million a year, assembled a fortune in real estate investments and, hence, considerable personal independence). His departure — almost inevitable, according to several people close to him — would take the last semblance of the old network along with him.

Fox News, without its unique asset of longtime audiences habituated to longtime talent, invariably begins to converge with its competitors, more and more losing its powerful leadership leverage. A less dominant and less reliable Fox News, in an industry that values dominance above all else (it’s the foundation of all media-buying programs), gives its competitors a new negotiating advantage with both advertisers and cable systems.

The next opening in a suddenly possible ratings war is about picking off available pieces of the Fox News audience. Fox News, arguably, is already a bit of a moveable feast. Kelly will debut in June on NBC and 15-year Fox stalwart, Greta Van Susteren, following Ailes’ departure, recently moved to MSNBC. 

Donald Trump, too, complicates the Fox News mission. Instead of dominating the Republican message, as Fox consistently did under Ailes (a master political operative and television programmer, Ailes understood the Republican base better than most Republican politicians), Trump now dominates Fox’s message.

The network has hitched itself to Trump’s variable and not necessarily promising personal approval ratings — with Rupert assiduously courting the president in almost daily phone calls. Anti-Trump Republicans now become news channel potential free agents. Indeed, the conservative spectrum appears to be breaking open. Libertarians, establishment types, alt-righters and free marketers as well as never-Trumpers might, depending on the offerings, start to do some serious message shopping. (A world with more varied opinion but less tribal division — Fox News being a leading tribe — is probably good for the country, too.)

As worrisome for Fox News, its own Trump and Republican bona fides are hardly a given. Both Murdoch sons James and Lachlan, more and more directly calling the shots at the network, have little personal sympathy for the cause. Mostly, in fact, they hold their noses. Fox News minus its agenda-setting voices and its Ailes-dictated messaging points is … CNN (and without CNN’s much deeper news-gathering resources).

It might only be the swiftness of the Fox News overthrow that stands in the way of the obvious opportunity for a new conservative network. Potential competitors, in some disbelief at the sudden and extraordinary gift of a defanged Fox News, are now scrambling to take advantage of their good fortune.

Sinclair Broadcast Group’s $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media’s large stable of stations will give the conservative-leaning company a network-size broadcast presence and the wherewithal to compete in the news space (it faced last-minute and panicky interest in the deal from 21st Century Fox, suddenly aware of its own vulnerability). With such a national broadcast footprint, it has the penetration to match Fox News’ audience. Many of its local stations are already producing a conservative-leaning news broadcast, which could be integrated with a network brand and national personalities. During the election campaign, in a deal negotiated by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Sinclair received special access to Trump for a pledge to run packaged interviews across its network with the candidate absent any commentary. 

Trump friend and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, long looking for a way to expand his conservative magazine-digital-television play, has been urged, reportedly from inside the White House, to try to finance a deal that would bring O’Reilly to Newsmax. The Mercers, father Bob and daughter Rebekah, leading financial supporters of Trump, Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, the Trump alt-right-leaning strategist, are among the potential willing funders of a major new right-wing media platform.

Most tantalizing is talk of a Bannon-Ailes tie-up, which might combine Mercer money, Breitbart base, Trump imprimatur — and Fox News talent.

Any new and aggressive conservative voice — especially leveraging the exiled Fox News voices — draws from Fox News itself. The center of the right, Fox News, cannot hold. And cable news becomes a new world if Fox News no longer leads it.