What Ailes the News

It wasn’t my intention to do three straight posts on Fox shows, but it’s hard to resist reading Roger Ailes talking about the 15th anniversary of Fox News and why he considers himself so awesome. (This is the interview where he said that he hired Sarah Palin because “she was hot and got great ratings.”) The interview, with his boasting about how much better his network is doing than the other news networks, is a reminder that triumphalism is one of the key components of the Fox News style, and it comes from the top, with his statement that criticism comes from people who are “getting [their] ass beat.”

Once Fox became the most popular 24 hour channel, its ratings became literally a part of its brand: every personality on the network, every PR person, is trained to remind people that Fox is the #1 network and to imply that criticism from other news outlets is due to jealousy. (And given that CNN and even MSNBC have both tried to imitate Fox News at times, there probably is some jealousy there.) The message is that Fox is a winner and other networks are losers, and that message itself is part of the strategy for winning: it’s the Patton theory, that people love a winner and will gravitate toward it. I don’t want to make Ailes out to be too much of a sinister genius, though; he probably also just really likes bashing other news outlets. But it probably does work strategically too.

To make the strategy work, of course, he had to get to #1 in the first place. The question I can never quite figure out how to answer is how much of that has to do with the packaging of the product – the shows – and how much of it has to do with the product itself. Fox News grabbed its own specific audience, the audience that thinks the rest of the news is liberal. Other networks are fighting over bits of at least two different, ideologically incompatible groups (liberals and self-proclaimed centrists) and even try to lure some conservatives away from Fox; they don’t know who they’re aiming for. Fox came along right when it started to became clear that audience fragmentation wasn’t going away, and successfully aimed for a specific portion of that fragmented audience. And because there are more conservatives than liberals in the U.S., there can’t really be a pure liberal version of the Fox approach: even if a network could get as many liberals as Fox gets conservatives, it wouldn’t be enough. This is also one of the reasons liberal talk radio has never taken off – another reason being that some liberals prefer NPR anyway.

Ailes is probably right, I have to admit, that his network does have a better grasp of the fundamentals of broadcasting than MSNBC or CNN. (As he notes, Wolf Blitzer just isn’t a star personality and his show doesn’t even make good use of him) and like most television, it benefits from reflecting the vision of one person rather than a quilt of random decisions from easily-replaced people. But I think the network benefits from knowing who it wants to entertain, as opposed to CNN , which has no idea.

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