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How Roger Ailes Built Fox News Into a Media Powerhouse

And why he would never be a political candidate like Trump

Ailes photographed at FOX News headquarters in New York. Wesley Mann

Roger Ailes' first moon shot came when he was 29 years old. He was in the Oval Office setting up the first interplanetary split screen. "Eagle" had just landed on the moon.

"I had video from the Earth and I realized I could set up a split screen," Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News—and this year's Adweek Media Visionary—recalls during an interview in his midtown Manhattan office. "The problem was, I couldn't control Neil Armstrong. He could walk across Nixon's nose if I wasn't careful." In the end, Ailes made it work.

Just like that day in 1969, Ailes has spent a career straddling the worlds of politics and media. He worked on four presidential campaigns before returning to TV in 1993.

"CNBC was completely in the dumper when I went there," he relates. "In fact, [NBC president] Bob Wright said, 'This is kind of a white elephant. We're thinking of selling it. Do you want to take a crack at running it?' I thought, well, that'd be good—change my image from politics, get back into television."

But his run was nearly over by the time it began. "I turned around, had a fight with NBC and quit," Ailes says. Then the phone rang. News Corp. chief "Rupert [Murdoch] said, 'Can you build a network that'll beat CNN?'" He did. It took just five years.

Today, Ailes runs one of the most valuable networks, on track to bring in $2.3 billion in revenue this year, per SNL Kagan, twice that of CNN. And now, the net has another jewel in its crown, boasting the most-watched non-sports cable program ever, with 24 million people tuning in for the first GOP debate this past August.

As for Ailes, he might just have another moon shot ahead of him.

Adweek: So, you are Adweek's Media Visionary for 2015.
Roger Ailes: Another mistake by the media (laughs).

And Fox News Channel is the Hottest News Network.
Well, we are, by all accounts. I look at that list of 200 channels and we're always up there. Even with the disconnects going on.

Does cord cutting concern you?
Well, it does if it keeps up. There's an advantage to being the No. 1 channel. I think we'll get hurt less than most. So, yes, I'm looking at it. Anytime there's an attack on the money, you have to look at it.

The other part of the money is ad revenue. Who are some new advertisers? Who's been the most loyal over the years?
The most loyal is Norfolk Southern. I don't know why. But many of them are pretty loyal. Infiniti, Lexus, Jaguar. We're good with the car companies. New advertisers: Oppenheimer, Ace Hardware, Allstate. So we're doing well. Our ad revenues are up 9 percent year to date.

Do you think Fox News gets enough credit for what it adds to 21st Century Fox?
Nobody ever thinks they get enough credit for what they do. I don't complain about it or whine about it or bitch about it. When asked, both [21st Century Fox co-chairman] Lachlan [Murdoch] and [CEO] James [Murdoch] have been very forthcoming and very supportive and very complimentary about what we're doing here. They probably don't want us to get a big head, so it's fine.

How's the relationship with James and Lachlan?
It's very good. I don't think they knew, and I don't think I knew, how it was going to work. But it's fine. I went to the off-site in Palm Springs and I spent a lot of time with them and they came over and sat at my table. And they've called me a few times for information and we've been cooperative on some stuff, and it's been really pretty smooth. It's not contentious in any way.

You now have the most-watched TV show ever on cable, nonsports, and you just signed on for another contract extension. What more do you have to accomplish?
I don't feel any different in my brain than when I was 30 years old. I have the same sort of reaction to new ideas and new things as I did then. I realize I look bad, but I don't feel bad. I'm constantly trying to invent different ways to do things. If you're going to be a television executive, you have to change with the times.

How's the relationship with Donald Trump? I saw he tweeted about Megyn Kelly, and then for the first time she …
... smacked him back a little. Because he got it wrong. Look, I've always had the same relationship with Donald for 30 years. It's a friendly relationship, surprisingly enough. I did call him after the first go-round and I said, "What the hell is wrong with you? The United States is at war with every goddamn country in the Middle East and you're at war with Megyn Kelly and you think that looks good? It doesn't look good."

Did you ever want to run for office?
I was asked many times, and about 20 years ago somebody actually tried to get me to run. And I concluded I would never do what I advised people to do, which is to behave and not punch people if they say something I don't like.

But it's working for Trump.
Yeah, but he hasn't physically done it yet.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Check out the rest of this year's Hot List honorees:

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