21st Century Fox said Thursday that Roger Ailes is stepping down as the longtime chairman-CEO of Fox News Channel, the cable powerhouse he created for Rupert Murdoch in 1996 and has led ever since, putting a sudden and unexpected end to a long, influential reign.
Mr. Ailes' departure had been reported as imminent in recent days, it was only two weeks ago that former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson sparked the company investigation that led to his ouster by filing a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment. Mr. Ailes has denied the allegations.
"Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country," Mr. Murdoch said in a statement that sounded more like a congratulatory retirement memo than the announcement of an executive's forced exit:
Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years. Fox News has given voice to those who were ignored by the traditional networks and has been one of the great commercial success stories of modern media. It is always difficult to create a channel or a publication from the ground up and against seemingly entrenched monopolies. To lead a flourishing news channel, and to build Fox Business, Roger has defied the odds. His grasp of policy and his ability to make profoundly important issues accessible to a broader audience stand in stark contrast to the self-serving elitism that characterizes far too much of the media. I am personally committed to ensuring that Fox News remains a distinctive, powerful voice. Our nation needs a robust Fox News to resonate from every corner of the country.
As it happens, 21st Centuty Fox also needs a robust Fox News, which contributes some 20% of the conglomerate's profit.
Its advertisers aren't expected to follow Mr. Ailes out the door, at least, not as long as the network retains its so-far loyal viewership.
Mr. Ailes' departure doesn't mean much for advertisers right away, said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national TV, Horizon Media. But it does raise important questions for marketers that value the audience it convened, chief among them whether Fox News will look the same under a new leader.
"In the long term, he's been the driver of the network," said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at WPP's GroupM. "He is very hands on. What happens now to the network if people who are aligned to him leave?"
Though core Fox News viewers don't have obvious alternatives in primetime TV, they might tune in less often if Mr. Ailes' exit begins an exodus of high-profile stars or ultimately prompts new hires in a different style. Top anchors like Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren and Bill O'Reilly reportedly have clauses in their contracts that allow them to leave the company upon Mr. Ailes' departure.
Mr. Ailes also often personally determined the way the network would frame the news of the day.
"Fox News is more heavily dependent on its CEO for its personality and operations than are most other networks," Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser wrote in a research note this week. "Because of this, the network has historically operated as an independent fief, and many of the network's highest profile on-air commentators evidently prioritize loyalty to its current leader rather than to the parent company."
By certain lights, it's hard to imagine a new leader trying to change the direction of Fox News.
It was the second highest-rated cable network in prime time in 2015, behind only ESPN. And it set a ratings record last year when 24 million viewers tuned in to the first Republican debate, making it the most-watched non-sports telecast ever on cable.
Fox News averaged nearly 2 million total viewers in primetime in the second quarter, compared with 981,000 on CNN and 896,000 on MSNBC.
Fox News generated $844 million in ad sales revenue last year, up 6% from a year earlier, according to SNL Kagan. CNN took in $377 million, up 4%, and MSNBC hauled in $278 million, up 2%.
Affiliate fees from pay-TV providers this year will total $1.5 billion for Fox News, $754.9 million for CNN and $283.2 million, according to SNL Kagan.
But Fox News' audience is the oldest-skewing of the cable news networks, with a median age of 69 compared with 63 at MSNBC and 59 and CNN. Fox News produced only slightly more national commercial impressions than CNN among adults 18 to 49, with a 1.1% share for Fox News compared to 0.8% share for CNN, Mr. Wieser wrote.
Fox News has also aged up over the last decade, while CNN under Jeff Zucker is moving in the opposite direction. In 2010, Fox News' media age was 65, up from 57 in 2004. CNN's media age was 63 in 2010, up from 61 in 2004.
The most commonly seen advertisers on Fox News are My Pillow, Nutrisystem, Liberty Mutual, Toujeo insulin and Prevagen memory supplements, according to iSpot data from January 1 through July 15. Top-spending industries on the network include auto makers, investment services and insurance.
New leadership may eventually be forced to make moves designed to reverse the aging of the network's audience.
It could be a blessing for Fox News that Mr. Ailes' departure comes amid the last leg of the presidential election, which will should keep viewers tuning in regardless.
"We think that with the current election season providing a substantial volume of natural drama and consumer interest, new leadership would have time to steady the business in the event of a disruption," Mr. Wieser wrote. "This should help retain advertising revenues, which are generally loyal to the network and its parent company, rather than to any individuals."
Contributing: Anthony Crupi