Much of the commentary surrounding the death of Roger Ailes has centered on the impact of the creation of Fox News and through that, its impact on our body politic. There is no doubt the former Fox News Chief created a media force which changed American politics, one which arguably has led to the political divide and reaction that ultimately resulted in the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
But a critical factor, one that is generally not known, is that MSNBC is responsible for the creation and unleashing of Fox News. Yes, that is right. MSNBC, the left-leaning cable arm of NBC spawned Fox News. While the general perception of most consumers of TV news is that Fox News Channel established itself as a major source of information reported through a more conservative lens, and that MSNBC, which struggled to find its voice for a number of years, ultimately landed as the liberal counterpoint to Fox News. And, that is largely true.
However, Roger Ailes started in the cable television industry at NBC, not at Fox. As the first President of NBC Cable, I had led the effort back in 1989 to establish CNBC. Four years later we were looking to bring in a new president of the business network CNBC to replace the then-head of the network. Jack Welch and Bob Wright, the CEO’s of GE and NBC respectively at the time, the parents of CNBC, thought Roger Ailes might be an interesting choice. I was given the assignment to pitch Ailes on why becoming involved with NBC Cable’s initiatives would be a major opportunity for him. I spent a couple of months in continuous conversation with Roger, outlining all the ways we could build a powerhouse in the cable industry. However, I found after a while that as a business channel CNBC was not that enticing a lure for Roger. Yet, as I described a new channel we would soon be launching that was to emerge from a set of deals we had recently struck with the nation’s cable operators, he became increasingly intrigued.
The name of that channel was to be America’s Talking. I explained to Roger that in growing our cable networks with the support of the cable industry we could not really take on CNN—the industries flagship news channel at the time, but that we could attempt to capture that flag down the road. In the meantime, I explained to him that we could certainly do talk about the news and create a channel of commentary and analysis about news and political events. Being able to have a 24-hour network media canvas on which to paint his own ideas caught Roger’s imagination. He finally agreed to come on board as President of CNBC and America’s Talking.
Well, as it turned out, NBC and Ailes did not make for such a happy marriage. Roger was constantly feuding with other executives in the company. As he focused on the competitive ratings battles and efforts to attract a new audience, he also spent an inordinate amount of time seemingly often looking to target or go to war with various people within NBC’s own family. More importantly, America’s Talking was not growing very quickly under Ailes and a number of us felt we had developed a channel that had big enough distribution into millions of homes in the cable industry that we were squandering a major opportunity in not accelerating its growth.
“Being able to have a 24-hour network media canvas on which to paint his own ideas caught Roger’s imagination.”
So I and Andy Lack, both then and now the very creative President of NBC News, hatched a plan. We knew that Bill Gates and Microsoft at the time were fascinated by the media industry and were looking to make their way into it. We thought we could pitch Gates on the idea of buying in and funding the expansion of the America’s Talking cable channel as a way of becoming a partner in the digital future of NBC News and all our cable news properties. We pitched him on rebranding America’s Talking as the Microsoft/NBC or MSNBC channel; one that would offer a new form of news network ― with a complimentary internet site where NBC News would be the programming source to fuel all of it. Andy and I knew that Welch and Wright would support such a deal, and, that very importantly, it would mean Ailes’ new cable channel would no longer be his to manage or to turn into the talk and commentary network he had envisioned. Our plan had a real attraction to it - upgrade the network with a major new media and financial partner, and find a good reason for Roger and his internal wars to go.
We completed the Microsoft deal and the stage was set for Roger to leave the company (along with some other issues that gave the final push). But unlike Roger’s departure from Fox News which held him to a non-compete, he left NBC with no handcuffs on him at all. The rest is known media history. News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch swooped Roger up, Fox News was created, and politics in this country has never been the same since.
I have often wondered what the last 15 years of American politics would have been like if the settlement with Roger when he left NBC had included some kind of non-compete and Murdoch had been forced to launch Fox News with someone else at the helm… someone who was not the explosive power Roger turned out to be.
After having left NBC and having been CEO of TiVo for over a decade, I thought “replaying” this critical piece of television history was important to clearly set forth, as we make sense of the life and death of Roger Ailes. Yes, MSNBC begot Fox News.
Mr. Rogers was the first President of NBC Cable and former President and CEO of TiVo and now is Executive Chairman of WinView Games.