Roger Ailes' knack for turning politics into entertainment changed cable news

Key Points
  • Roger Ailes passed away at 77. No cause of death was given.
  • Ailes is known for being the former chairman and CEO of Fox News. He used his background in talk show production and political consulting to shape the network
  • Ailes resigned in July 2016 after several sexual harassment allegations were leveraged against him
Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News and Fox Television Stations.
Fred Prouser | Reuters

Former Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes' focus on turning partisan political news into entertainment changed the face of cable news forever.

"The creation of Fox News was a sea change," said Betsy West, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "[By] staking out Fox News as a media outlet attuned to the voices of the political right — including the far right — he really set the stage for our current politicized media landscape."

Ailes passed away at the age of 77 on Thursday. No cause of death was given.

His wife Elizabeth Ailes said in a statement: "I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning surrounded by his beautiful family. Roger was my best friend, the most wonderful loving husband and father to our son Zachary, He was a loyal friend to so many. Roger was a patriot, grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise-and to give back. During a career that stretched over more than five decades, his work in entertainment, in politics, and in news affected the lives of many millions."

The former Fox News executive pushed the cable news industry into the realms of entertainment and opinion. However, a string of sexual harassment allegations, including some from high profile former Fox News talent Gretchen Carlson and allegedly Megyn Kelly, lead to Ailes resigning as chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network in late July 2016.

Ailes began his career as a producer on "The Mike Douglas Show," which eventually became a nationally syndicated talk show. He then moved into political consulting, working with the likes of George H.W. Bush and former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.

Ailes eventually made his way back to television, this time focusing on cable news. In 1993, he became president of CNBC and later created the "America's Talking" channel, which would eventually become MSNBC. He then was tapped by Rupert Murdoch in 1996 to become CEO of Fox News.

West, who previously was senior vice president at CBS News and an executive producer at ABC News, said that before Fox News, the only model for cable news was CNN's then-style of straight reporting. Ailes began the movement of turning cable news into politically-tuned outlets.

"It was the beginning of people going to their own echo chambers, listening to the programming that conformed with their own political thinking," she said.

This blend of politics and talk show theatrics appealed to a demographic of Americans who felt their viewpoints weren't acknowledged by mainstream media. West said Ailes prided himself in "representing anti-elite media."

"That talk show mentality where you really want to create controversy, where you want to create energy, where you want it to be entertaining — like when he worked on 'The Mike Douglas Show' — you can see it when Fox News debuted," she said. "It had a different rhythm to it than CNN."

In the world of cable news, Fox News has been a ratings juggernaut, often coming in first. One media buyer said that while news has never been a huge draw for advertisers because of its typical older viewership, Fox News' large audience numbers made some brands open to advertising on its programming. At the same time, it also scared away some companies who were afraid to be associated with the network's political views.

"It made the news genre more of a consideration than it had been for many, many years," said the media buyer, who asked to remain anonymous.

Gabriel Khan, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said what Ailes understood best is that Fox News needed to play to its key audience to win.

"That's really what Fox did: They owned a cable news audience by serving a segment that might have been underserved," Khan said.