It’s the equivalent of a media earthquake: Roger Ailes has resigned from Fox News.
The most powerful man in media is out of a job, in part due to a sexual harassment lawsuit that former Fox host Gretchen Carlson filed against him on July 6.
Fifteen days ago, Ailes was on top of the world. His network had its highest ratings ever in 2015, with that momentum carrying over into the year of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Twitter's algorithm boosts right-leaning content, internal study finds Ohio Democrat calls Vance an 'ass----' over Baldwin tweet Matt Taibbi says Trump's rhetoric caused public perception of US intelligence services to shift MORE. In some recent months, Fox was not only the top-rated cable news network — that's been the case since 2001 — but the top-rated cable network overall.
For 21st Century Fox, a publicly traded company, Ailes was arguably its most valuable employee. The research firm SNL Kagan estimates that the cable news channel generated $2.3 billion in ad sales in 2015. Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser reports the operating profit for Fox News was $1.6 billion last fiscal year, or nearly 25 percent of 21st Century Fox's overall operating profit.
As the leader of Fox News for the past 20 years, Ailes generated the kind of loyalty that is rarely seen in the media anymore. Almost every major name to join the network 10, 15, 20 years ago is still there: Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren, Shep Smith, Neil Cavuto, Bret Baier, Bill Hemmer, Martha McCallum, Jon Scott, Brian Kilmeade, Steve Doocy, Brit Hume, Kirsten Powers, Geraldo Rivera, Juan Williams, Charles Krauthammer.
Fox has built its empire largely around its viewers being patently loyal to the product because — after seeing the same faces every day and night for over a decade or, in some cases, two decades — the hosts have became staples in their living rooms, almost extended family.
Compare that to CBS, NBC and ABC. Anchor chairs aren't the lifer jobs they used to be. The days of Brinkley, Mudd and Cronkite, even Rather, Brokaw and Jennings, are long gone. Ailes had the ability, the instinct and the resources to keep his best people around. The ratings and profits flowed from that stability.
So will Fox News drift backwards as a result of a sudden Ailes exit? The answer is an emphatic no.
Ailes will be staying on as a consultant for now, meaning he won't be able to start another version of Fox News elsewhere while taking those loyal to him in the process, as some have speculated.
Speculation that Ailes could start Fox News 2.0 was just fantasy. To start a network from scratch would be a tremendous undertaking for anyone — and especially for Ailes, who is 76 and admits he is not in the greatest health.
In the end, Fox has the built-in formula for success by offering a more conservative product with no real competitor. Ailes often described the basic mission statement of Fox News when he said he "discovered a niche market in American broadcasting: half the American people."
Of course, this doesn't mean Fox can just put anybody on the air and expect success. But ultimately, the two biggest names to watch are Bill O'Reilly — owner of the No. 1 show in cable news — and Megyn Kelly, host of the second highest rated.
O'Reilly turns 67 in November but still has plenty left on his fastball and has trimmed his hosting duties down to mostly four nights per week. O'Reilly likely isn't going anywhere for at least another 10 years, especially when he's still on top.
Kelly, meanwhile, is just 45 and has a contract up next year. Her options — given the star power and respect she's gained since moving to prime time in 2013 — seem unlimited. Whether the Ailes turmoil will affect her decision is anyone's guess.
But if she goes, it would be a huge loss for Fox. Ailes always saw her as a bridge to a much-needed younger audience. The average age of the Fox News viewer is 68, or five years older than MSNBC (63) and seven years older than CNN (61). For Fox to continue to dominate, Kelly would have to stay on as the face of the network.
As for who replaces Ailes, one would think the Murdochs will be wise enough to embrace the "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" mantra. Rupert Murdoch is taking his place for now. But at age 85, it is obviously only a stopgap measure.
Bill Shine, currently senior VP of Fox News and Fox Business, is likely the top selection, given the current hierarchy. Jay Wallace, recently promoted to executive VP of news and editorial, is another strong possibility, as is executive editor John Moody. CBS News President David Rhodes is a name also being floated around, but he's under contract until 2019.
This media earthquake will have aftershocks for some time. But Ailes leaves a stabile, strong network behind that can navigate shaky ground until a new leader is found.