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[This story contains spoilers for the premiere of The Loudest Voice on Showtime.]
In the premiere of The Loudest Voice, perhaps one of the biggest surprises is the fact that what could be a vicious portrait of the man who created Fox News features a scene where the former employees of Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe) gather — to tell him they love him.
“The thing about Roger that’s fascinating to me, which I think Russell did a great job in trying to kind of really bring to the fore, was that people loved Roger. They loved him. He wasn’t an ogre of a man who bullied his way into power, you know? I mean, he was, but he was self-deprecating and funny and charming,” showrunner Alex Metcalf told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve talked to some people who’ve worked at Fox who will remain nameless, who did horrible things during their time at Fox, but what they really regret is losing the relationship with Roger. Not all the horrible shit they did at Fox, but losing that relationship with the man.”
Sunday’s episode, “1996,” is in fact framed as an underdog tale, beginning with Ailes’ exit from NBC and ending with the fledgling launch day of Fox News. The Showtime drama is based in part on Gabriel Sherman’s book The Loudest Voice in the Room, which chronicles Ailes’ childhood and early experiences working for the Republican National Committee and producing Broadway shows. But Metcalf and the other writers decided to structure the series around pivotal years in Ailes’ life, years that were also key to the rise of Fox News.
“We landed on the idea of the arc of Fox News to tell Roger’s story, mainly because all of that precursor stuff would be wrapped into those 20 years. But then, within the context of that 20 years, what was important to us was to try to figure out what made him the man he came to be and what made Fox the organization it was,” Metcalf said. “It was important to us to see the underdog story of Roger, because it gets very easy to vilify him, and starting at Fox News made more sense to start with some sort of understanding of the man.”
Beginning with the birth of Fox News was an opportunity to show that, in Metcalf’s words, the network’s launch “was not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination.” In fact, Metcalf noted that “1995” wasn’t able to tackle all of the obstacles that Ailes faced in launching the network including the fact that — thanks to a battle between Time Warner Cable and Rupert Murdoch — Fox News wasn’t available in New York for the first eight months of its launch.
“There’s a whole section of the cable wars that we didn’t even get into,” he said. “Roger did some amazing stuff to get it on air ultimately in New York.”
As reported by the New York Times on October 7, 1996 (the network’s official launch day), Fox launched with live newscasts; live call-in shows (including two hours of a show called Pet News); weeknight shows anchored by Bill O’Reilly, Mike Schneider and Catherine Crier and, of course, Hannity and Colmes.
The episode features a few key moments which contribute to the show’s portrait of Fox News’ earliest days. One is Ailes’ discovery of Sean Hannity (played in the series by Patch Darragh), whom The Loudest Voice depicts as a green, easily coachable young man lacking in intellectual depth that Ailes likes after muting his audition tape, calling him a “real guy.” Once paired with liberal commentator Alan Colmes, Hannity and Colmes was one of Fox News’ early flagship series.
In addition, front and center is one of the most notorious stories about Ailes — the fact that he shaped the concept of what a female Fox News host should look like: beautiful, blonde, and wearing a short skirt so that viewers can see her legs though the clear glass tabletops.
“Roger understood the power of entertainment and the power of beautiful people,” Metcalf said. “Yes, it’s a sexist idea to want to see legs, but he understood how to sell, basically.”
Metcalf continued, “Fox is very much a creation of Roger’s imagination and Roger’s understanding of what, at least, a certain segment of the population wanted, and he gave it to them. And the connection between what a Fox woman was and what Roger saw as his own ideal of femininity, I think, are completely linked. They’re essentially one and the same, so there’s no surprise that he was personally attracted to the same women, the same kind of woman that he wants on air at Fox News. It’s not a surprise.”
Ailes had a very specific type — “sexy Doris Day, I think, was really his ideal of what a Fox woman should be,” Metcalf said. And many of the women who fit into that box were also targeted by Ailes for their looks off camera, including host Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts), who would later go on to take Ailes down for sexual harassment.
Metcalf saw Ailes’ behind-the-scenes behavior as somewhat separate from his focus on the network’s onscreen aesthetic: “While it’s all of a piece, yes, in terms of objectification and all of that, one is about selling something. The other is about his personal satisfaction and needs.”
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