Even before Ailes resigned last week following sexual-harassment accusations leveled by a former anchor, Time Warner Inc.’s CNN had been eating into his network’s commanding lead. Now, Fox News’ dominance of cable news has been thrown into question as it seeks to replace one of the most powerful executives in television history.
“You have a charismatic, visionary leader, one of the leading players in television news, who is now departing the scene,” said Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News. “That creates a potential opportunity for not only CNN, but MSNBC.”
The shakeup at the top of Fox News could reshape the cable news landscape and allow CNN to capture a piece of what’s become a major profit center for parent 21st Century Fox Inc. The company’s cable networks, led by the news channel, accounted for as much as half of its revenue last year and more than two-thirds of its operating income.
Fox News still maintains a sizable lead over its rivals. So far this year, the network has averaged 2.2 million viewers in prime time, compared with 1.16 million for CNN, and 890,000 for MSNBC. And Ailes isn’t out of the picture: He’ll serve as an adviser to Rupert Murdoch, who becomes chairman and acting chief executive officer for Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network. Some analysts say Fox’s loyal, politically conservative audience is unlikely to switch to another network as long as it doesn’t make any major changes to its format.
Yet Fox News risks losing viewers in the wake of Ailes’ departure. On-air talent like Greta Van Susteren and Sean Hannity reportedly have clauses in their contracts allowing them to leave if Ailes departs, which could affect the ratings, Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research Group, wrote in a research note before Ailes resigned on Thursday.