Much has been made of the purported singular treatment Donald Trump received at the recent Fox News debate. Perhaps we will discuss the viability of Mr. Trump in another post (I love the fact that Michael Cohen, his attorney, who appears on TV as his proxy, never fails to refer to him as "Mr. Trump"). In the interest of full candor, I am not a big Mr. Trump fan, and I will get to that in a bit. But what I will say about this dust up is that I think it's actually more a commentary about Fox than it is about Trump.
Let's remember that Fox News is a very big business. Its ratings on cable are second only to ESPN. It is estimated by Forbes to generate in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion in revenue with nearly a 40% cash flow margin. Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News for Rupert Murdoch, is in the business to make money for himself, his boss and his boss' stockholders. To do that, he needs to develop content that generates ratings which generates advertising. Fox has dominated cable news ratings for 13 years. I could care less what your political persuasion is, if you know anything about business, you have to give Ailes some props. He may be Republican at heart, but his wallet is pure capitalist.
Fox began to deviate from its more pronounced ideological platform a few years ago when it began giving more prominence to a soft news reporter named Shepard ("Shep" to his audience) Smith. He touted his good ol boy credentials by making repeated references to having attended Ole Miss. He was given "disaster" assignments to polish up his news chops, most notably covering Hurricane Katrina during which he threw some editorial grenades at the federal government's response to the crisis.
Shep was undeniably getting more airtime, his folksy demeanor working well in the afternoon hours when ratings aren't as essential as they are during prime time. He had clearly found himself in the good graces of the executives at Fox since his profile and portfolio continued to expand.
Fox's prime time was dominated by more overly right side commentators, all men, all white. Shep was morphing into the newer news side of Fox: an on air "talent" placed on a set that looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise with massive video displays and crew members who sat at touch screens wearing headsets. They even called it the Fox News "deck"! It was and is a disturbing development.
And then came Megyn Fox....I mean, Kelly. She had occupied the afternoon hours now featuring Shep and made very appealing guest appearances with Bill O'Reilly, reigning ratings king of the network. He would consult her on legal matters, so Megyn could display her lawyerly chops, and she would have the audacity to challenge Bill, often with a playful smile. She was smart, attractive, a mom and....she stands up to Bill O'Reilly!
Then Ailes took his big gamble: he broke up the male monopoly during prime time and gave Megyn a coveted hour. Megyn is not a commentator like O'Reilly or Hannity, nor does she deliver hard news as their mid-morning anchor duos do. She and Shep, in my view, are cut from the same cloth; they both cover the hard news stories of the day, but they also enjoy delving into the prurient, somewhat tabloid stuff that makes the assignment editor's desk. The stuff that gets ratings. And they both like to make suggestive comments about their opinions, usually just before they go to a break.
It's a Millenialized version of the news intended to draw viewers of that younger demo into the Fox ratings pool. Which gets me back to the debate, Fox and Mr. Trump.
Despite statements to the contrary, I do believe that Megyn Kelly targeted Trump with those early, provocative questions, not to test his presidential mettle, or because Fox wants to drive him out of the race, but because Ailes knew the potential of that night's "content". He knew that with this
unconventional debate structure, unconventional number of candidates and The Celebrity Apprentice himself, the prospect of ratings being off the charts was too big to ignore.
How to stoke the fires, light up Twitter and guarantee the highest possible numbers for the longest possible duration? Go right at Mr. Trump right away and see what ensues. Uh, how bout 24 million
viewers and the highest rated non-sport telecast EVER on cable? Megyn goes on vacation and Mr. Trump announces that there is no issue between he and Mr. Ailes.
Mr. Trump knows a lot about a lot of things. And one of them is getting ratings. He is as media savvy as they come. Mr. Ailes might have bested him on this night.