Four More Years? Roger Ailes in Talks Over New Contract

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Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

With the presidential contest too close to call, both campaigns are planning for the aftermath. At Fox News, Roger Ailes is planning for his next term as well. According to two sources with knowledge of the discussions, Ailes is in contract negotiation with News Corp. for a new multiyear deal. His contract doesn't expire until next summer, but Ailes's personal lawyer, Peter Johnson, a frequent Fox News contributor and sometime guest host, is talking with Murdoch associates about the terms of a new deal. The sources described the talks on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the discussion.

No deal has yet been reached. One source familiar with the talks speculated that, given Fox's record profits, Ailes could ask for a mega deal, worth more than $30 million per year. But another source close to Ailes explained that, for Ailes, signing a new deal is not only about the money. Ailes has to figure out what he wants to do next. But money is surely a consideration: Ailes is a guy who likes to keep score. And at News Corp., he's the third-highest-paid executive, behind Rupert Murdoch and COO Chase Carey. This week, it was announced Ailes made $21.1 million last year. With Fox News on track to earn $1 billion in profit, it's certain Ailes would want the biggest contract of his life. At 72, Ailes is keenly aware of his legacy.

Whether Murdoch accedes to his terms is an open question. But Ailes has significant leverage. For one thing, the pending breakup of News Corp., and the ongoing hacking scandal, means that Fox News will be the financial cornerstone of the newly independent television and movie-centric company. Fox News generated about 40 percent of News Corp.'s profits last year, and those profits have translated into more control for Ailes. At News Corp., executives describe Ailes's relationship to Murdoch as entrepreneur to investor rather than employee to boss. But one limiting factor on Ailes securing the epic payday he wants would be the fact that Murdoch and News Corp. COO Chase Carey earned $30 million and $24.8 million last year, respectively. It's hard to see Murdoch paying Ailes more.

Then again, Ailes has exerted tectonic influence on the company before, especially around contract time. Four years ago, Ailes threw a fit when he learned Murdoch was flirting with an Obama endorsement in the New York Post. Ailes went to Murdoch and reportedly threatened to quit. Murdoch extended Ailes a new contract and endorsed McCain instead. "Rupert has always capitulated," one intimate says. For the past year, Ailes's public moves have been setting the stage for these contract talks. In October, when Fox was celebrating the network's fifteen-year anniversary, Ailes told the Associated Press that he might just leave television and buy the Cleveland Indians (Ailes is an Ohio native). "I always wanted to raise the money to go back and buy the Cleveland Indians and be sure they won one more World Series," Ailes said. "But I got sidetracked."

Was floating the idea of buying a baseball team a bargaining move? Ailes's friends say he has never shown much of a serious interest in sports, but professing a desire to quit carries benefits when Ailes knows Murdoch needs his profits. Ailes has also been working to keep the Fox News juggernaut in place in advance of his own contract re-signing. In April, Fox renewed the contracts for Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly through 2016. One talent whose future at the network is in question is Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson. According to one person familiar with the matter, Carlson and Fox have been haggling over her contract terms. Carlson is said to want to host her own show on the network, but Fox executives are resistant to the idea. This summer, as the talks dragged on, Carlson was conspiculously absent from Fox & Friends for days on end. One person said they were able to reach a short-term accord that would keep her on the curvy couch with Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade until the election. But after November, it's unclear.

There are significant reasons for Ailes to remain rooted at Fox News. The network is his kingdom, and he rules over the operation unchallenged. He has yet to publicly designate a successor. And his competitive streak provides plenty of drive for him to keep the ratings numbers juiced. In Tampa last week, Fox attracted more than 9 million viewers for Romney's speech. The ratings crashed for the Democratic Convention. The faithful apparently didn't want to watch the opposition.

A spokesperson for News Corp. declined to comment. Ailes's attorney, Peter Johnson, did not respond to a request for comment.