Roger Ailes and about 20 of his producers and executives — including experts in lighting, graphics and engineering — gather now and then in a conference room on the second floor of Fox News headquarters in midtown Manhattan and watch the channel for eight hours straight.
“Anybody can say anything about what’s on the air,” said Bill Shine, Fox’s executive vice president of programming, “from ‘We don’t like the color of the graphics’ to ‘We don’t like the clothing that the anchors are wearing’ to ‘Why did we pick that story?’ ‘Who stacked that show?’”
The marathon critiques are one way that Fox News tries to stay sharp despite 10 straight years as the cable-news ratings leader — a milestone the channel, which launched in 1996 as a distant underdog to CNN, celebrated this week.
“America has clearly embraced fair and balanced news,” Ailes, the chairman and CEO of Fox News, said in a statement.
Perhaps not all of America — Fox News has been a lightning rod for criticism from the left and has been blasted by many prominent Democrats, including top officials in the Obama White House, for the conservative bent of its morning and prime-time programming. More neutral observers fault Fox for setting the trend for more opinion on cable news, and Ailes himself is portrayed in some liberal circles as an omnipotent, Republican Svengali.
But even the channel’s most hardened critics would acknowledge that it has become a business, media and cultural juggernaut, lavishing airtime on conservatives like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Karl Rove, while driving debate on subjects ranging from the rape accusation against Duke lacrosse players to the proposal for a mosque near ground zero.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), one of the most liberal members of Congress, is a frequent visitor to the Fox Washington bureau, near Union Station.
“They’ve always been fair to me,” he said in a telephone interview. “There’s a misconception that the only people who watch Fox are right-wing Republicans. They have a large audience, and it’s important to reach. How can we ever change people’s thinking if we don’t try to talk to them?”
Fox averaged 1.9 million viewers in prime time in January, compared with 841,000 for CNN and 801,000 for MSNBC, according to Nielsen figures. Fox launched in October 1996. The channel first beat CNN in January 2002 — in both prime-time and total-day viewership — and has been first ever since. “The O’Reilly Factor” was the first Fox News program to top CNN, when Bill O’Reilly topped “Larry King Live” in March 2001.
“We really turned the corner with the coverage of the recount in Florida in 2000,” said Jim Angle, Fox’s chief Washington correspondent, who left ABC News to join his former colleague Brit Hume for the channel’s launch. “That’s when we passed up CNN, and we have never looked back.”
Plans for growth, according to Fox executives, include websites, apps and livestreams.
The critique sessions, like Fox News itself, are the brainchild of Roger Eugene Ailes, a brash former Republican media consultant who continues to drive and shape his creation to the point that he remains synonymous with the organization, inside and out.
“We have one dad in this family,” said Shepard Smith, a star anchor who was a correspondent in the Los Angeles bureau at launch. “He makes all the decisions, and you know exactly who you have to go to, and you know when to stop asking. If you get an answer from Mr. Ailes’s office, that’s the answer; it’s time to move on.”
Smith said that when he leaves Ailes’s office, “the last thing he asks me is, ‘What can I do for you?’ And the last thing he tells me is he loves me.
That’s not going to work everywhere, and most people will hear that and go, ‘You are full of crap.’ That’s exactly how it is here, and I love it.”
Michael Clemente, senior vice president of news, who joined Fox in 2009 after a 27-year career at ABC News, said Ailes remains “a hundred percent central” to Fox News.
“I think he loves the journalism we do as much as he loves the opinion that we do,” said Clemente, who is Shine’s counterpart for hard news. “What Roone [Arledge] was to sports, I think Roger is and has been to politics.”
Ailes, an Ohio native, has television credits that include executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show,” founder of the former America’s Talking cable network, and the presidency of CNBC. Shine said: “He’s directed. He’s produced. He’s hosted shows. He’s prepared guests. He has done, literally, every job here. … He knows how to put a good product on the air, and he teaches that to us and translates it all down through us.”
In hotel rooms when he’s traveling, Ailes sometimes scouts talent by watching the local news with the sound off. “One of Roger’s ideas is you watch TV with the sound down,” Shine said. “If that screen or that person on that screen is so compelling that you want to put the sound up, that show or that person is doing something right.”
Before the channel’s launch, Shine was hired to run “Hannity & Colmes,” which became a Sean Hannity solo effort after liberal Alan Colmes left the show. (Colmes remains a Fox News commentator.) Shine said one key to Fox’s success has been a consistent on-air product since the beginning: “big, bold graphics; big, nice, bright studios; attractive, smart anchors.”
The roster of talent that’s been at Fox since Day One includes Neil Cavuto, Bill O’Reilly, Jon Scott, Shepard Smith, Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes, Trace Gallagher, Jim Angle, Carl Cameron, Rick Folbaum, Wendell Goler, Lauren Green, Eric Shawn and Uma Pemmaraju.
Smith, the anchor of “Studio B” at 3 p.m. and “Fox Report” at 7 p.m., described the early years in one word: “lean.”
“As hard as we tried and as good of people as we had, we did not know what we were doing,” he said. “We couldn’t get satellites up. We couldn’t get to places on time. … Mr. Ailes put this thing together in six months.
Thankfully, not a lot of people were watching as we were practicing on air. … [T]here would be two of us at a story and there would be 12 from ABC, and they would have every angle covered and we would have me.”
Smith said the Columbine, Colo., school massacre in 1999 gave an early taste of Fox’s unorthodox approach to big stories. “We were not in the middle of the bookings race to push and pull of children who have just been witnessing their friends die,” he said. “I think we might have been, because of our youth as an organization, a little more gentle.”
Smith said the Fox lesson for other businesses is: “Every problem is not solved by throwing money at it. … We have never outspent anybody on anything, as far as I can tell. … I like that everybody has to work extremely hard, … and that we’re working from many, many, many different platforms.”
Ailes’s greatest concern, according to Smith, “is that we get it right … because we are so heavily scrutinized.”
“We’re probably among the most scrutinized news organizations that’s ever been,” Smith said. “That’s how it is, and the part of this organization that is news gathering and dissemination has to get it right.”