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Updated: Fox News chief Roger Ailes signs on for 5 more years, saying 'life is good'

November 20, 2008 | 10:00 am

Roger Ailes, the savvy and hard-charging television executive who transformed the Fox News Channel from an upstart enterprise to the top-rated cable news network, sealed a deal Wednesday to remain in his post for five more years.

Ailes’ new contract extends the key role he plays in News Corp. as chief executive of Fox News and chairman of the Fox Television Stations.

“Roger has done a remarkable job building Fox News into a force in journalism,” News Corp. Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch said in a statement.

Ailes is also in charge of the Fox Business Network, My Network TV and 20th Television.
In an interview, he said one of his top goals for the next five years is “to keep Fox News Channel No. 1.”

“I’ve got to build the business channel into a competitive force,” he added. “And at some point the advertising will come back on the station side. There’s plenty of work to do.”

Since 2002, Fox News has held the title of the most-watched cable news network, though CNN enjoyed some key rating victories during this year’s presidential campaign, including on election night.

“Democrats tend to go over there and watch,” Ailes said, then he paid his rival a rare compliment, noting its high-tech set: “I think CNN did a good job also. They bought enough equipment to outfit all the movie theaters in America.”

Still, he said he was confident that Fox News, sometimes criticized for having conservative commentators, would fare well in an Obama administration. While all the cable networks saw large audience dropoffs in the week after the election, Fox News retained 70% of its prime-time viewers while CNN held on to 42% and MSNBC kept 60%.

“If we keep doing what we’re doing, which is tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may, I think we’re going to be fine,” he said.

Ailes said he had not given any orders about how the network should treat Barack Obama, despite a recent report that he had instructed Fox News hosts to show deference to the president-elect.

Rather, he said he told staffers at a meeting that “all presidents deserve time to get their team on the ground and get organized.”

“As American citizens, we all believe we are innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “I think we should extend that same rule to our leaders in our country. And therefore we have some obligation in a new presidency not to attempt to destabilize it. It does not mean we wouldn’t cover something that came [in] and it was new information.”

Whether the network’s hosts will heed his advice remains to be seen, he said, adding wryly: “Who knows? Most of them do whatever the hell they want.”

Ailes is still working to expand the reach of the year-old Fox Business Network, which launched in October 2007 as a challenger to CNBC. The channel is now available in 42 million homes, about half that of its competitor.

“It’s a tougher climate to get rolled out for new subscribers, but we are in ongoing negotiations with every cable operator and everybody else, and I feel certain we’ll get this worked out eventually,” he said.

He faces another challenge with My Network TV, a programming service News Corp. created in 2006 for its stations after the merger of the WB and UPN. Its original lineup of English-language telenovelas fell flat. “They weren’t dirty enough,” quipped Ailes.

The network currently airs a mix of action movies and reality shows, but executives were in meetings this week to discuss a new approach.

“We’re considering every strategy,” Ailes said. “Let’s put it that way.”

The 68-year-old executive, who declined to say how much his new contract is worth, said he isn’t thinking about retirement.

“As long as I’m as healthy as I feel today, life is good,” he said. “Maybe 20 years, 25 years. I think the Queen Mum died early; she was 102.”

— Matea Gold