Fox News bigger than ever two years after Roger Ailes

Fox News bigger than ever two years after Roger Ailes
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Saturday marks two years to the day since Roger Ailes, Fox News’ longtime chairman and CEO and the programming genius behind its overwhelming success and influence, parted ways with the network amid sexual harassment allegations. 

As a result, more major changes — both in front of and behind the camera — have occurred at Fox since July 21, 2016, than did in the previous 20 years combined. 

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Not only has Fox survived but it has exceeded its pre-Ailes numbers, despite losing huge names such as Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren, who comprised 75 percent of Fox's primetime lineup. 

With those 7, 8 and 9 p.m. hosts gone in the span of nine months, between September 2016 and April 2017, the challenge was to reinvent itself in the evening without going outside the shop to do it. 

Enter Tucker Carlson, Martha MacCallum and Laura Ingraham, three former hosts at other networks who had settled in with Fox's audience over the years — to the point that the whole get-to-know-you stage could be avoided, if inserted into primetime. 

To start, Carlson got the 7 p.m. ET slot in November 2016, then the 9 p.m., before eventually settling into O’Reilly's former 8 p.m. slot after proving he could gain ratings — and could go viral via one-on-one debate segments — regardless of his time slot. 

For context, Carlson's ratings today are within striking distance of O'Reilly, who ruled cable news and held its top rankings for an astounding 15 years. In the second quarter of 2018, Carlson averaged 2.7 million viewers and easily won his time slot over MSNBC's Chris Hayes (1.76 million) and CNN's Anderson Cooper (977,000). When comparing that to O'Reilly's last second-quarter numbers to Carlson's in the election year of 2016, O'Reilly averaged 2.93 million to Carlson's 2.7 million in Q2 of 2018. Given O'Reilly's dominance, Fox likely will happily accept being that close to the pin. 

MacCallum, a former CNBC morning host who anchored Fox's “America's Newsroom” for years before being named host of “The Story with Martha MacCallum” at 7 p.m. in 2017, also has generated better ratings than Van Susteren, who occupied the 7 p.m. slot for 15 years, from 2002 to 2017. In Q2 of 2018, MacCallum averaged 1.97 million viewers per night in winning her time slot; in Van Susteren's last Q2, in 2016, the former trial attorney earned 1.75 million. 

Watching all of this unfold was veteran Sean Hannity, who occupied the 10 p.m. slot for the past five years and the 9 p.m. slot for 17 years before that. As a staunch, unapologetic supporter of President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE, Hannity has become the new undisputed king of cable. He returned to the 9 p.m. slot in September 2017 and unseated MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as the most-watched show on cable news not long after. In Q2 of 2018, Hannity topped Maddow in total viewers, with an average of 3.37 million to her 2.75 million. 

The only open time slot that remained to be addressed was at 10 pm. Sitting on its figurative hosting bench was frequently seen political commentator Laura Ingraham who, like Carlson, once hosted a program on MSNBC in the late ’90s, when that network was decidedly more toward the political center. 

As Fox weighed its choices, Ingraham’s resume was hard to ignore: nationally syndicated talk-radio host, new media publication Lifezette co-founder, occasional O'Reilly fill-in host, with the latter ensuring there wouldn't be a get-to-know-you transitional period with the audience if she followed Hannity. 

It also may have helped that she had one of the more memorable speeches at the 2016 Republican National Convention, one that received major praise at the time while showing how much Trump supporters valued her opinion. 

"Laura Ingraham rocks the GOP convention, presses for unity behind Trump," read a CNN headline in July 2016. 

"Laura Ingraham just showed us how Trumpism will survive after Trump. She out-Trumped Trump. And the audience loved it," said Vox in another headline. 

 

Fox offered her the 10 p.m. slot in September 2017, which may go down — along with plucking Carlson off of weekend mornings — as the best decisions made at the network in the post-Ailes era.  

“The Ingraham Angle” launched the following month. In the second quarter of 2018, she enjoyed her best three months since launching last October, easily winning her time slot against MSNBC's second-highest rated program, “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.” She attracted 2.654 million viewers to O'Donnell's 2.102 million. 

On the executive level, Fox elevated Suzanne Scott to network CEO, making her the only woman to run a major TV news organization in the country, in broadcast or cable. Another veteran of the network, Jay Wallace, who like Scott had been with it since its inception 22 years ago, was named president and executive editor of both Fox News and Fox Business. 

Scott had been Fox's programming chief when it made its monumental lineup changes and is widely credited with keeping the network's staff sane and the ship steady in turbulent seas as all those changes took effect. One source familiar with the operation described her as a "steady" figure in "the network's darkest days."

Add up all the changes in content and on the executive level, and the Nielsen numbers show Fox is doing decidedly better than it had the month after Ailes left. 

In August 2016, just three months before the election during the most-watched presidential campaign in cable news history, Fox averaged 2.083 million viewers, and 374,000 viewers in the key demographic in primetime. This past June — another busy summer month in cable news, with the North Korea summit and the Supreme Court dominating headlines — Fox averaged 2.545 million viewers in primetime and 491,000 in the key demographic, or an increase of 298,000 total viewers and 117,000 in the advertiser-friendly demographic, respectively.

Friday's abrupt departure of Kimberly Guilfoyle of "The Five," to campaign with Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpOn The Money: Trump signs first 2019 'minibus' spending package | Mueller probing transactions by Russian organizers of Trump Tower meeting | Stocks brush off trade fears Trump Jr. slams Rosenstein report: 'No one is shocked' Rosenstein wanted to wear wire on Trump, NYT says MORE ahead of the 2018 midterms, means another hole has been created in its lineup. But with Lisa Boothe or Kennedy or Katie Pavlich already having guest-hosted multiple times on the program, its likely the show — and the network — will not miss a beat on the ratings front, regardless of who is chosen to replace an original cast member like Guilfoyle, if history is any indication.

In the end, cable news can be a messy business. Fox News had seen plenty of controversies through the years but rarely changed course, amid smooth sailing on the Nielsen ratings front — until, that is, Ailes was suddenly gone, followed nine months later by most of its dominant primetime lineup. 

Yet, Fox remains the network with audience loyalty like no other because of smart decisions made by people behind the scenes. 

And, in the end, the scoreboard has changed, two years later — surprisingly, for the better. 

Joe Concha (@JoeConchaTV) is a media reporter for The Hill.