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Fox News Staffers Sense Executive Tumult Could Continue

Variety logo Variety 5/2/2017 Brian Steinberg
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Bill Shine’s departure from Fox News Channel, announced Monday, puts a new executive structure in place at the 21st Century Fox cable-news outlet. Rank-and-file staffers wonder if they might need to rearrange the organizational chart yet again in months to come.

In the last ten months, the network has lost three of its most senior people: Roger Ailes, its former CEO and guiding light; Bill O’Reilly, its best-known anchor; and, yesterday, Bill Shine, a co-president whose ties to top talent and programs were substantial. Ailes’ ouster, which took place last July in the wake of a sexual-harassment lawsuit levelled at him by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson and a subsequent internal investigation, has set in place a quick-falling row of dominoes that some believe has yet to stop.

The network and its parent company are beset by an array of litigation from employees charging gender or racial discrimination. And federal investigators are looking into whether certain payments made to former female employees of Fox News were disclosed properly.

“Changing the culture would require much more,” said Nancy Smith, an attorney who represented Carlson and who has recently filed suits against Fox News on behalf of two contributors, Julie Roginsky and Diana Falzone.

At issue is the fact that other senior executives at the network have been cited in some of the legal cases currently extant against it– much like Shine. Suzanne Scott was elevated Monday to president of programming. Dianne Brandi is the network’s executive vice president of legal and business affairs. Both have a long history with the network and ties to Ailes, and both are cited in select legal matters. In the Roginsky lawsuit, for example, the Fox News contributor alleges that Brandi and Scott were among those who declined to help her after she alleged Ailes had sexually harassed her. Scott has denied those allegations.

Ailes has denied all charges levied against him. A 21st Century Fox spokesman did not respond to inquires seeking comment. Fox News pointed to several executive changes announced Monday, including the arrival of Amy Listerman as the unit’s new chief financial officer and giving additional duties to Kevin Lord, executive vice president of resources. He will take on the role of Head of Compliance. The company has said 96% of employees have undergone sensitivity training since Ailes’ departure.

Another attorney representing a racial-discrimination suit against Fox also called for more action. “While long overdue, we are pleased that 21st Century Fox has taken a step in the right direction by permitting Bill Shine to resign,” said Douglas Wigdor in a prepared statement.  “Much more needs to be done, however, including holding Dianne Brandi accountable for permitting a known racist to prey upon our clients and acknowledging and accepting responsibility for the harm our clients have and continue to suffer.” Fox News has “vehemently denied” the suit’s claims.

Fox News on Monday made Jay Wallace president of news and Brian Jones president of Fox Business Network. But there are some staffers who wonder if someone else might eventually come in, according to one person familiar with the company. “Shine’s job is considered an open position,” this person said. “That means someone else is coming.”

Indeed, 21st Century Fox said yesterday Jack Abernethy, who was co-president of Fox News along with Shine, would retain that title – implying, perhaps, that he could be joined by a partner. Scott, who, as president of programming inherits duties closest to Shine’s, is not taking his title or overall responsibilities. Since Ailes stepped down and 21st Century Fox executive chairman Rupert Murdoch took on more oversight of  Fox News, there has been constant speculation that at some point, the company would bring a new executive to run the place.

Fox News doesn’t run by itself, but there have been signs in recent days that its audience is not abandoning despite its business gyrations. In April, despite several days of broadcasts with Bill O’Reilly no longer on the air, Fox News’ primetime schedule notched a 42% increase in the number of viewers between 25 and 54 – the demographic most favored by advertisers in news programming.

Now there is a new schedule to maintain. Tucker Carlson has moved to 8 p.m. “The Five” now hold forth at 9. And this week the network launched two new programs, the “Fox News Specialists” panel show at 5 p.m. and a retooled news-side showcase for Martha MacCallum at 7. Both shows’ debuts beat competitors from CNN and MSNBC in viewership, and each won more than 300,000 viewers among viewers 25 to 54. Fox News has also managed in recent months to secure the bulk of interviews President Trump gives to the media – a feature that no doubt proves alluring to its conservative audience base.

The network has leadership in place. But as the recent past has shown, internal politics, external optics and the courts can cause a lot of upheaval in a short amount of time.

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