Roger Ailes in 1996 supervised the launch of a multibillion-dollar business few people thought would ever get off the ground. In 2019 he may have a posthumous hand in instigating something equally complex: a ripped-from-the-headlines drama about the media industry, complete with portrayals of people who still help make it run.
If that foray is successful, plenty of similar stories are waiting in the wings.
Ailes, who died in 2017, oversaw the debut and massive growth of Fox News Channel, a creation that both admirers and detractors acknowledge has changed the face of U.S. politics and news. On June 30, Showtime debuts miniseries “The Loudest Voice,” a warts-and-all account of Ailes’ early days building the outlet — and his later years, when former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson’s accusations of sexual harassment forced the network’s parent company to oust him, and sparked a spate of unsavory revelations about internal culture at media companies ranging from Miramax to NBC-Universal to CBS Corp. Ailes denied the claims against him.
“We really wanted to be as honest as possible,” says Alex Metcalf, an executive producer and showrunner of the series, in an interview. “We felt the weight of all those people we are portraying who might be watching the show.”
Telling a based-on-real-events story about the media business can be difficult. It’s one thing to make a series about doctors or police officers. It’s quite another to make one set in the not-too-distant past that features actors playing executives who continue to exert influence in the sector. “Loudest Voice” includes dramatized versions of Fox Corp. chiefs Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan as important characters.
“Divide and Conquer,” a documentary on Ailes that aired on cable’s A&E, didn’t make much noise, but Showtime plans a premiere for “Loudest Voice.” Its two stars, Russell Crowe, who plays Ailes, and Naomi Watts, who plays Carlson, are slated to appear on CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” this week.
Media-sector stories have tended to favor inspiration over inside baseball tell-alls. TV’s best-known fictional media series include shows like CBS’ “Lou Grant” or HBO’s “The Newsroom.” On the big screen, “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” are the stuff that sticks.
Some of the tales out of media shops in recent years, however, are less galvanizing or feel-good. CBS was besieged by accusations of misconduct levied at then-CEO Leslie Moonves and onetime “CBS This Morning” co-anchor Charlie Rose. Both denied the claims made against them. NBCUniversal terminated longtime “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer in late 2017, citing “inappropriate sexual behavior.” And then there’s the ongoing saga of Harvey Weinstein. Any of these stories would make for potboiler miniseries — though some awkwardness could arise from having to portray executives, celebrities and anchors who continue to work in the field.
Doing a drama about Ailes presents fewer challenges than some of the other media tales. He’s no longer alive and can’t contest the plotline. Moonves and Weinstein — who also denies charges made against him — could raise objections. The decision to take part in such a project can make waves. Lifetime was set to make a drama about “Today” based on the Brian Stelter 2013 book “Top of the Morning,” but scrapped the project amid speculation that Disney, which has a stake in the cable network, felt the subject matter would only put a spotlight on its own “Good Morning America.”
Metcalf acknowledges the audience for “Loudest Voice” is most likely people in the business it portrays, but says producers aim to draw a broader crowd.
For that to happen, he suggests, viewers need to feel some reason to get to know Ailes better and follow the arc of his story. The opening episode of the series depicts the executive (a fidgety Crowe under four hours of makeup) as an underdog, a guy who had to leave NBC after his “America’s Talking” cable network was tapped to become MSNBC. Ailes gets Jack Welch (John Finn), CEO of NBC parent General Electric, to give him room in terms of the competitors he might work for, then sets about trying to navigate the internal culture at the Murdochs’ News Corp.
“It’s important to see the whole man. If you don’t see the whole man, we’ve failed in telling this story. He was a loving husband and a loving father, and he did all the stuff he did,” says Metcalf, adding: “Is he a protagonist or an antagonist? My answer is yes.”