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May 14, 2017

Lipstick On A Fox, The Bill Shine Shake-Up and Myth Of The Sons

Can you put lipstick on a Fox?

That’s just one of our immediate questions as time caught up with Bill Shine, long-time Roger Ailes lieutenant. Shine followed Bill O’Reilly out the door on Monday, just two weeks after the cascade of women’s harassment claims made him more of a liability than an asset to Fox News and the wider Murdoch Empire – just as it is intending to expand greatly.

 

First published at TheStreet on May 1, 2017

Follow Newsonomics on Twitter @kdoctor

Less than a year ago, Shine had moved up as Fox and the Murdochs made a similar calculation about Roger Ailes. Then, too, they figured – as Murdoch company clean-up has entailed in recent years from Hackgate to the removal of Dow Jones publisher Lex Fenwick – they would make the minimum, public relations-positive change in management, and wait for the other news to erase memories.

So it is, at first reckoning, with the appointment of Suzanne Scott, herself a long-time deputy of Bill Shine. We’re told that Scott takes charge of programming while Jay Wallace, another long-termer, continues to head up news. We’re bound to hear statements in the coming days about the company’s earnestness in ridding itself of its “Mad Men” culture. Just like we did last summer – when it turned out that Ailes’ behavior wasn’t an outlier, but a model for O’Reilly and others at America’s most popular cable news channel. We’ll be told it’s different this time.

That seems unlikely, but let’s ask five questions of the moment about what may turn out to be a less than momentous announcement:

  • Will Scott and Wallace really change the culture of Fox News? Any ingrained workplace culture is tough to change – even with real intent. Already Twitter is alive with the behind-the-story comments about the unlikeliness of Scott at that. After all, in a culture of workplace of harassment – kind of proven by more than the $85 million in related payouts Fox has had to make to try to disappear the problem – Scott has been part of the enabling team. In part, of course, Fox plays a woman card, saying the gender at the top of the heap will make a difference.
  • Why did the Murdochs finally throw Shine under the bus, if well-wrapped in dollar bills? Here, the playbook is clear as it was in the wake of O’Reilly’s ouster [“Don’t Be Fooled Into Expecting A New Fox News“]. They have a history of overextended loyalty to those who have built the empire; a good quality in moderate doses. So they delay, delay, delay and often times, the ill winds die down. When they don’t, they do what needs to be done. Empire first.

We do have several new data points to add to this question.

First, call it The Myth of The Sons. Even the New York Times, whose reporting forced this issue this spring (more on that below) offered the good storytelling [“In House of Murdoch, Sons Set About An Elaborate Overhaul“} of the more democratically (and marginally Democratically) inclined James, and less so Lachlan, Murdoch to really change the bloated red face of Fox News. Well, maybe. I’m less than convinced and today’s action reinforces that doubt. Scott replacing Shine is a classic (Rupert) Murdoch move, so what can see that has really changed?

Beyond that speculation of generational change, we see two big deals squarely in front of all the Murdochs. Just this weekend, formal news broke that Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) , the parent of the Fox News Channel, would pursue Tribune Media’s big group of 42 stations, aiming to beat back new growing rival Sinclair Broadcast (SBGI) . Tribune Media’s current market value: $3.2 billion. (That would-be bid, of course, anticipates the ever-loosening of Federal Communications Commission regulations, allowing greater dominance of the nation’s TV markets by fewer companies, a fruit of Fox’s own endorsements of the new president.)

A Tribune Media (TRCO) bid joins Twenty-First Century Fox’s current effort to buy the rest of Sky, Europe’s largest satellite broadcaster – if it can get UK regulatory approval.

This is classic corporate transactional psychology: When you need the approval of others, you moderate your behavior. Fox could no longer risk those two big acquisition deals by not taking some action at Fox News.

  • So what does this tell us about Fox News’ “news”? Today’s announcement is about people — not programming. There’s little incentive for Fox to change that highly profitable programming, and one that Scott has helped create. That was true when O’Reilly decamped with an extra $25 million and the same holds true today, with perhaps one asterisk.
  • Are you calling Sean Hannity a big asterisk? In the zany, right-angled house that Roger built, loud-mouthed talkers have built huge followings that have produced outsized ratings and great advertising payout. We haven’t yet found out whether O’Reilly’s departure would any business harm, and early strong post-O’Reilly ratings tell us that its audience cares even more about Fox’s alt-reality take on the world than it does about personalities.

But what if Hannity were to go, too? Last week, he took to Twitter to pre-emptively try to prevent Shine’s ouster. How likely is he now to stay on? Should Hannity go – or be shoved – then we might have to newly calculate the fortunes and immediate future of FNC.

  • Shouldn’t we recall the role of the New York Times in all this? It was the Times’ reporting, which the Times is happy to remind us smartly and often on its smartphone app, which led to O’Reilly’s, and implicitly, Shine’s departure. The Times’ interviews with those testifying to Bad Boy O’Reilly’s behavior, over years, built to a crescendo that the Murdochs, to their great pain, couldn’t ignore.

It’s one thing to be forced to confront the long-simmering issues they’d long ignored. It’s another to have Rupert’s chief arch-rival, the no-longer-failing New York Times, force the confrontation.

Even as we live in some of the weirder media times we’ve seen – witness the oddities of this year’s Correspondents Dinner, and its counterprogramming – it is persistent, insistent reporting that’s forced Fox’s hand here, Michael Flynn’s hand there and who knows how many other hands to follow.

To add further internal insult to financial and reputational injury, the Times looks triumphant in the war Rupert declared with it upon buying the Wall Street Journal, now a long decade ago. There’s little time, or air, for Schadenfreude, but, for the moment at least, score one for the Sulzbergers.

 

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