The end of a long-running hit show can be a sobering moment for a TV network.
The finale of “Friends” ended the seemingly unstoppable run of NBC’s “Must See TV.” HBO had to brace for a future without “Game of Thrones.”
Now Fox News is facing the same challenge after its most-watched prime-time personality, Tucker Carlson, was suddenly yanked from his perch Monday amid the scandals and lawsuits facing Rupert Murdoch’s conservative network.
Guest host Brian Kilmeade, a co-host on “Fox & Friends,” filled in for Carlson on Monday night, and others will rotate until a permanent replacement is named for the 8 p.m. Eastern hour.
Is it the beginning of the end for Fox News’ run as the cable news ratings leader since 2002 and as a powerful and disruptive influence in political discourse?
Not likely, history shows.
Liberals hate Fox News and critics call it right-wing propaganda. But Carlson’s departure won’t end its status as a refuge for an audience wanting to marinate in “anti-woke” commentary, Hunter Biden embarrassments, immigration and any other outrage of the day bugging conservative pundits.
The Fox News viewer chooses that environment even with a different voice delivering those missives. When Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Glenn Beck were shown the door, the network replaced them without missing a beat.
“It’s worked in the past because they are not selling a personality, they are selling a mindset and selling a view of the world,” said Jon Klein, a tech entrepreneur who ran CNN from 2004 to 2010. “It’s the power of the Fox News brand.”
Carlson’s rise is a prime example of the formula’s reliability. A veteran print journalist, he was a two-time loser in cable news, having been fired from both CNN and MSNBC, leading to skepticism that he was the best choice to replace O’Reilly after he was ousted over sexual harassment allegations in 2017.
But Carlson tapped into the mindset of Trump-loving viewers while being compelling enough to draw in some liberal hate-watchers as well. That made him an even bigger hit.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” retained most of O’Reilly’s audience levels and improved the Nielsen ratings performance in the 8 p.m. Eastern time period among the key 25-to-54 age group that advertisers covet.
Previously, Fox News held strong after the network fired conservative firebrand Beck, whose conspiracy theories and on-air claim that former President Obama hated white people lost him advertisers on his 5 p.m. show.
To fill Beck’s void, Fox News came up with “The Five,” the opinionated roundtable show that is now the most-watched program in cable news, surpassing “Tucker Carlson Tonight” by drawing more than 3 million viewers daily.
“The Five” has become a Fox News talent incubator for other programs, demonstrating the company’s strategy of allowing its audience to become familiar with new faces before elevating them to larger roles.
Jesse Watters, who started out as a mischievous ambush interviewer for O’Reilly, gained enough of a following on “The Five” to earn his own show at 7 p.m. Eastern, which improved ratings in the hour by 50%. Greg Gutfeld, the comic relief on “The Five,” was given his own late-night program, which now tops broadcast network stalwarts such as “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
Fox News Media Chief Executive Suzanne Scott has been criticized for her handling of the network’s reporting on alleged voter fraud in the 2020 election (the company paid Dominion Voting Systems $787.5 million to settle a defamation suit over false statements made by the network). But she has shown a knack for identifying personalities that connect with Fox News viewers.
“She is keenly aware of who her audience is,” said one talent agent who does business with the network and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “She knows how to cast. She programs for her audience and not for the conference room.”
Still, Fox News is likely to take a ratings hit without Carlson. Kilmeade’s first night in the time slot was down nearly 600,000 viewers from Carlson’s average of 3.2 million viewers. Other Fox News personalities expected to get a shot in Carlson’s chair include daytime host Harris Faulkner and “Fox & Friends” weekend co-host Will Cain.
But the network could be better off financially in the long run even with a slightly smaller audience. Although Carlson was a ratings hit, major advertisers stayed away from his program after his 2018 comments that Democratic immigration policy was changing “the demographics of the country,” which critics described as an endorsement of racist “replacement theory.”
A new host will probably make less than the $15-million to $20-million salary Carlson pulled in a year. Plus, a less incendiary personality could attract big brand-name advertisers that had stayed away from the program, driving up the price of commercials.
What might change the equation is if Carlson shows up on a competing network. After the news of his firing broke Monday, conservative competitor Newsmax put out a statement that sounded like an invitation to the now show-less host.
“For a while Fox News has been moving to become establishment media and Tucker Carlson’s removal is a big milestone in that effort,” Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy said in the statement. “Millions of viewers who liked the old Fox News have made the switch to Newsmax, and Tucker’s departure will only fuel that trend.”
Although Newsmax would love to land Carlson, he probably has a noncompete clause that allows him to leave the network with what was owed to him on his contract. That might keep him off a competitor’s airwaves through 2024.
Carlson also could pivot to a direct-to-consumer strategy. An online newsletter, podcast or streaming brand would offer the pundit a cheap and easy way to engage his fans without having to go through another cable network.
“The real money would be in creating a D2C podcast/media property that you could sell to someone like Spotify,” said Maribel Lopez, founder of the tech research and consulting firm Lopez Research.
Controversial podcaster Joe Rogan’s own deal with the Swedish audio giant, estimated to be worth some $100 million, is a case in point, she said.
“I can’t imagine Tucker Carlson not putting out content,” said Ray Wang, founder of the tech advisory firm Constellation Research. “Direct-to-consumer is probably one way to do it.”
But it’s not a perfect solution.
“Six out of every seven of his viewers are over the age of 55,” said Eric Nuzum, co-founder of the podcast consulting and production agency Magnificent Noise. “A lot of the self-distributed platforms, be it newsletters or podcasts or YouTube or all these other things — you’re not seeing older audience members there, or the number of them are smaller and they’re less comfortable.”
Times staff writer Brian Contreras contributed to this report.