Here we go again.
When Rupert Murdoch, 92, announced he is stepping back and appointing his 52-year-old son, Lachlan Murdoch, to succeed him in day-to- day control of Fox News and News Corp. it triggered breathless speculation as to what, if anything will it mean to the right wing tv network he built from scratch.
I’m betting that Lachlan will not have any zest to change his father’s methods. And it remains to be seen whether the elder Murdoch who will be chairman emeritus can steel himself away from having control of the company that he has nurtured into a cable-news powerhouse, whether you love or loathe the Fox News Channel, almost since the day of its inception in 1996. The family still controls 40 percent of the voting stock of the publicly traded Fox Corp.
Still, the mainstream media treated the announcement like a bombshell. The media ecosystem is buzzing with speculation that the Murdoch media empire’s jewel, Fox News, will change its scorched-earth conservative posture and become a kinder and gentler television cable channel.
Don’t bet on it.
We have heard this song before.
Most recently when Fox was ordered to pay Dominion Voting Systems the staggering sum of $787 million in an out of court settlement to avoid going to trial to settle a defamation suit. Or when Roger Ailes was forced out amid scandal and then died in 2017. When its ratings star Bill O’Reilly left the network. When his successor and even bigger ratings star and Trump syncophant Tucker Carlson left only a week after the Dominion suit was settled forcing Fox to shake up its prime-time roster. And so it goes.
On each of these epochal occasions, media experts speculated that the publicity fallout would be so immense that Fox would have to become less aggressive and more broad-minded. It never happened.
And it won’t happen now, either for a simple but concrete reason: Fox can’t afford to change.
The hunter has been captured by the game. Fox makes too much money by playing the right-wing bully.
If Fox decided now to change, it would be in danger of losing those people to Newsmax or some other competitor.
In terms of rating numbers, Fox News has lapped the competition like Secretariat pulling away at the Belmont. It is no coincidence that this has happened.
Murdoch cares about money, above everything else. He is a businessman, not a crusader.
At the start, he and Ailes envisioned Fox News as a way to tap a huge but somewhat ignored or, at least, overlooked and underserved, market: disenfranchised conservative news junkies who felt so alienated by what CNN was serving up in the late 1990s that they bitterly referred to Ted Turner’s cable-news baby as the Clinton News Network.
Murdoch and, to a degree, Ailes, were not driven by ideology, though. They saw that huge market and salivated. They shrewdly knew how to attract those eyeballs and keep them loyally in place.
Somehow, CNN remained oblivious to the rise of Fox, or so it seemed, because CNN took a long time to understand what Fox had accomplished.
By the time CNN did wake up, it was too late. Fox had catered to its market, much in the way today that Republicans talk about their “base” and don’t allow any decision to upset it.
Fox’s biggest challenge now is how to handle Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Trump has a remarkable lead over the Republican field–even though he faces 91 felony charges. As the public sees it, Trump and Fox are joined at the hip. But the two have not always had a smooth relationship. Since Trump jumped into the fray in 2015, one side or the other has felt aggrieved.
It is a true symbiotic relationship at the end of the day. Fox needs Trump to keep its ratings high and punch its conservative card. Trump needs Fox because he wants to keep his base locked in and he knows it watches Fox with an almost religious fervor.
But Fox has a headache. What if Trump, for one reason or another, does not turn out to be the Republican nominee in 2024. It is possible that the new candidate could resent Fox’s treatment. Then again, who’s kidding who right here: No right-wing candidate can afford to alientate the Murdochsand Fox News–just as Lachlan Murdoch cannot afford to change Fox much.
Jon Friedman wrote Jon Friedman’s Media Web column for MarketWatch from 1999 to 2013. Murdoch’s News Corp. acquired MarketWatch in 2007.