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Television | THE NEWS BIZ

Up next, wrangling respect

Ratings and revenue? No big problem. Now Fox News wants the world -- and a nicer image at home.

October 08, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York — RUPERT MURDOCH and Roger Ailes had just announced their intention to create a 24-hour cable news channel from scratch, vowing to launch within a year and take on industry leader CNN. As they walked out of the news conference in the fledging network's Sixth Avenue headquarters in January 1996, Ailes turned to the News Corp. chairman.

"I said, 'Rupert, they're laughing at us,' " the Fox News chairman and chief executive recalled in a recent interview. "And he said, 'They always laugh in the beginning. That never bothers me.' "

Indeed, the upstart cable channel -- which CNN founder Ted Turner once boasted he would squash "like a bug" -- seemed to thrive on the skepticism about its endeavor. Casting itself as a "fair and balanced" alternative to the mainstream media, Fox News Channel surpassed CNN in the ratings in January 2002 and since then has been the undisputed cable news champion, regularly amassing an audience more than double the size of its competitors'.

This year, there are signs that its seemingly unstoppable rise may be stalling, as for the first time it has experienced significant audience erosion. But Fox News' viewership still far outstrips that of its competitors and as the channel celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend, it is one of the top 10 cable networks. Few are joking now about the viability of a network the New York Times once dubbed Ailes' "imaginary friend."

Proving the doubters wrong hasn't softened the channel's underdog attitude -- or the ambition of its leader.

Ailes, a canny former GOP political operative whose competitive, pugilistic spirit sets the network's tone, now has his sights set on a new goal.

"I want the Fox News Channel to be the dominant source of news in America and around the world," he said matter-of-factly, sitting jacketless in his spacious glass-walled office, his hands folded neatly over his portly frame.

Aiming for dominance is a natural move for Ailes, a communications wizard whose early recognition of television's potency helped Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush use the medium to their advantage. Since moving into the cable news industry, Ailes has garnered a reputation as a hard-charging boss who is fiercely loyal and unforgiving when crossed. (When Paula Zahn left Fox News for CNN in 2001, he retorted that a "dead raccoon" would have gotten better ratings than her program.)

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SHORING UP RATINGS

THE 66-year-old executive usually declines to speak to the press, but on a recent afternoon he offered an expansive view of his plans for the network, at turns emphatic and self-deprecating.

"I've been a hired hand all my life," he said. "Give me a mission, and I try to complete it. I don't have a lot of pretense about who I am or what I do. I get paid to make the numbers, milk the cows, make sure we do what we have to do."

But before Ailes can help Fox News expand its reach, the channel must deal with some immediate challenges. In the first eight months of this year, the network drew an average prime-time audience of 1.46 million viewers, a drop of 13% over last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. During the same time period, CNN was essentially flat with 745,000 prime-time viewers, while MSNBC was up 14% to 351,000.

All three networks fared worse in September compared with that period last year, when coverage of Hurricane Katrina swelled audiences. Holding onto eyeballs in a slow news cycle is a perennial problem for cable news channels, one with which Fox News' competitors, in particular, continue to wrestle. Lately, CNN has been pushing its hard-news brand and spotlighting globe-trotting anchor Anderson Cooper, who reported from the Congo last week, while MSNBC has experimented with airing taped programs in prime time.

For Fox News, this year's ratings slump -- which comes just as it is demanding substantial hikes in subscriber fees from cable and satellite providers -- has prompted speculation that its brash attitude has a limited appeal.

Network executives shrug off such suggestions, blaming the drop on a sluggish news year. They said they are constantly evaluating their lineup but expressed confidence that viewership will pick up once the 2008 presidential campaign begins next year.

"I'm not overly concerned," Ailes said mildly. "There appears to be a large audience for what we do."

The network chief is more irked about something he says Fox News has been denied in its rapid ascent: respect.

"What critics of our channel love to do is mix our journalism with our opinion shows and pretend that's what we're doing," he said. "Our critics love to mash them together and act as if Sean Hannity is doing the evening news, which is just nonsense. They don't give enough credit for our journalism."

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