What’s Ahead for Fox Stations

Insiders give predictions on Ailes’ strategy
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Having built Fox News Channel from the ground up when many said cable news was a no-growth industry, Roger Ailes is tackling another big challenge. The new chairman of Fox’s 35 TV stations and its syndication unit, Twentieth Television, is tasked with getting those divisions to realize their potential.

Over the coming weeks, Ailes is expected to devote most of his attention to establishing afternoon news formats and a morning show for the Fox stations, while examining their costly programming needs. He’ll also likely take a close look at syndication-distribution models and seek ways to improve the studio’s meager first-run–programming batting average.

Ailes declined to comment on his strategy for this article, but others throughout the industry offered details. Ailes, whose syndication roots go back to his days as a consultant for Paramount’s The Maury Povich Show, is expected to focus on establishing a new format for 5 p.m. newscasts on all Fox stations, perhaps along the lines of those working well on the former New World stations. Word in the industry is that he’s also working on a syndicated morning show leading out of local morning newscasts, likely to run in network pattern. Fox has struck out previously in the mornings, but Ailes will use the tactics that have made Fox News so successful in the daypart.

He and Fox Station Group CEO Jack Abernethy, the former Fox News deputy who landed his current job last December, will rethink ways to boost Twentieth’s bottom line. The syndicator has made a killing with sales of off-network fare such as The Simpsons and could have another goldmine down the road with revived cult hit Family Guy. But it has also suffered a series of expensive failures in first-run programming, such as Ryan Seacrest’s short-lived chatfest. The slow-rollout model used by Twentieth to introduce shows into the market, first on the Fox stations and then nationally, may come under scrutiny as well.

Observers expect that Ailes and Abernethy will scrutinize the need for product at the Fox and UPN stations and the performance of what is already there. “They have spent a lot of money, and the losses have been substantial,” says a competitor.

Former station-group President Mitch Stern took first-run shows from outside suppliers only on an all-barter basis, which helped send daytime syndication into a tailspin at the time. But former group Chairman Lachlan Murdoch changed course, paying cash license fees for most first-run daytime product, such as Telepictures’ upcoming Tyra Banks.

MORE CASH LICENSE FEES

Estimates on how much Fox pays syndicators for first-run shows are all over the map, but several outside program suppliers believe that Fox is now much more receptive to paying cash license fees, even in daytime. The old policy “departed when Mitch departed,” one syndicator notes.

Ailes’ move toward afternoon newscasts could prop up license fees for strong lead-in shows. Paramount’s Judge Judy has proved to be Fox’s best news lead-in so far. Fox is believed to have paid high cash license fees to extensively use Judy and Judge Joe Brown, the No. 1 and 2 court shows, as launch pads for Twentieth-produced court shows. Twentieth has embraced court, one of the most profitable daytime genres. Judge Alex moves in next month in place of the cancelled Texas Justice.

As Ailes prepares for his new role, one thing is certain. Comments a rival, “It won’t be business as usual.”

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