NEW YORK — On the surface, the Fox News Channel Roger Ailes left behind would seem to be thriving. Profits are strong, and it has spent much of 2017 as the most-watched network in all of cable television, not just cable news.
Instead, Fox feels at a crossroads. Ongoing lawsuits related to the conduct of Ailes and others leaves a cloud over current management, on-air personnel changes have emboldened competition and there's a nagging sense that the network's creative center of gravity is missing. Fox may never be as influential as it was when Ailes was building it into a powerhouse.
Ailes, who died at age 77 on Thursday, created Fox News in 1996 and ruled there until he was forced out last summer due to sexual harassment allegations. Seldom had a network so thoroughly reflected the vision and wishes of one man, whose belief that mainstream media tilted left led him to build a 24-hour news space where conservative viewers would find a comfortable home. "There was an underdog spirit here," Fox anchor Shepard Smith recalled. "We worked not for Fox News, but for Roger Ailes."
Chris Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax and a friend of Ailes until he started a competing media company, said Ailes once told him he believed Fox would fall apart after he left.
It didn't, and set ratings standards with the beginning of President Donald Trump's administration. Fox parent 21st Century Fox largely left Ailes loyalists in place to run the network after he was ousted and follow his template, although top deputy Bill Shine recently left because of questions raised on how much he knew about a toxic workplace atmosphere. Unresolved lawsuits related to Ailes and fired prime-time host Bill O'Reilly contribute to uncertainty about future management.
In the meantime, "I don't think they have a clear direction," Ruddy said. "They're living off of Roger's fumes right now."
Ailes was a master at finding issues and introducing them to the culture at large — the "war on Christmas," for one — driving them so relentlessly they often became part of the agenda for the media at large. While Fox under Ailes usually set the agenda for the conservative movement, it now often follows the lead of others, said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America.
As head of a liberal media watchdog, Carusone was against virtually everything Ailes stood for. But he respected Ailes' ability to make issues he felt were important a part of the conversation. You could sense the way he empowered anchors to deliver the ideas with confidence, he said.
Now it's possible to sense his absence by a lack of new ideas. "The Five," for example, with four conservatives kicking around stories with a single defensive liberal, was a simple Ailes concept that hit its mark. The replacement show "The Specialists," created to fill a hole in the schedule left by O'Reilly, feels like a pale imitation. It also carries a whiff of condescension — "specialists" talking down to an audience — that Ailes would never abide by, Carusone said.
"I think Fox will be unrecognizable in five to seven years," he said.
Fox also had a dynamic on-air look with color and graphics that was groundbreaking 15 years ago but now feels stale, in need of a makeover.
Ailes "believed the television screen had to come alive — not just the person, but everything on it," Ruddy said.
Besides losing Ailes, Fox News has lost three-quarters of its weeknight lineup since last summer in O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren. Kelly left for NBC News and Van Susteren now has a daily show on MSNBC. O'Reilly's firing last month was the most damaging; he'd been the network's top-rated personality for most of its existence.
Events outside of Fox's control has made this precisely the wrong time to establish a new lineup. The relentless run of bad news for Trump over the past few weeks has likely depressed Fox's regular viewership, much like supporters of Hillary Clinton stayed away from television news for the month after her election loss.
As a result, MSNBC beat Fox among the 25-to-54-year-old demographic that's valuable to news advertisers last week for the first time since the beginning of 2009. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has supplanted O'Reilly as the most popular cable news personality. Fox veteran Sean Hannity finished third behind MSNBC and CNN in the news demographic on both Monday and Tuesday, the Nielsen company said.
For years, it was not unusual for Fox to easily get more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined.
His close relationship with Trump helped Hannity lead the news cycle on many nights during the campaign. Since the run of damaging news stories against Trump began, Hannity has become the angry id of the Fox audience, charging that the president's opponents were "unhinged," ''foaming at the mouth" and "wetting their pants." Yet there's a startling repetition to his message — on both Tuesday and Wednesday's shows, Hannity ran the same old clip of Ann Coulter being laughed at by an audience when she predicted early in the Republican nomination process that Trump would win. He didn't discuss the news so much as ridicule the reporting of others.
In coming years, Fox faces more competition for conservative eyeballs. Newsmax expects to increase its television reach from 10 million to 35 million homes this summer. Sinclair Broadcast Group's recent agreement to buy Tribune Media will dramatically increase Sinclair's reach into new marketplaces and its potential to influence viewers with a right-leaning viewpoint.
Fox News has one of the oldest audiences in television and young conservatives are becoming more used to finding their news online. Many of his friends don't even bother paying for cable, said Chandler Thornton, a recent American University graduate who works for the College Republican National Committee.
"Fox has really established itself as the dominating force in cable news," he said. "I don't see that changing soon. What I do see changing is that some of the smaller online outlets, maybe they'll have more influence."