Since Donald Trump’s election loss in November, Sean Hannity seems to have been working through a process, live and on camera, on his nightly prime-time Fox News show and his daily radio show.
“My heart’s troubled,” he told his on-air colleague Laura Ingraham. “It’s aching for my country right now.”
Hannity’s process is a window into the current tumult inside Fox News, as the former president’s former favorite network tries to find its place in a post-Trump reality. The end of a presidential campaign is often a time for news organizations to take stock and recalibrate their strategies. But never before had a network been so closely affiliated with a commander in chief.
Now, as Trump wages war with the more established elements of his own party and against Fox News itself, the network is seeking to navigate its future without the ear of a sitting president or even his angry voice from exile.
And it is doing so — notably with a blitz of programming changes — amid something of an identity crisis, as a network that has long prided itself on being the king of cable TV has slipped from the top.
On Tuesday, Fox announced that it finished its 19th consecutive year as the No. 1 cable news network. But in January, Fox reported monthly ratings that fell behind both of its main cable news competitors, CNN and MSNBC, for the first time in 20 years. Even Fox’s prime-time opinion juggernaut of Hannity, Ingraham and Tucker Carlson had a smaller combined audience than their CNN competitors did last month.
And, unlike its rivals, Fox News had a worse January than it did a year ago. While CNN was up 128 percent in total viewers in prime time for the month, and MSNBC was up 53 percent, Fox was down 13 percent compared with a year earlier.
Some see in this plunge the disaffection of conservative viewers who had come to think of Fox as a loyal partner of Trump — only to share his outrage when the channel’s news division did not support his bogus claims of a stolen election.
“Fox has succeeded for years in straddling the line between a quality news organization and the opinion side. But Trump won’t let that happen anymore, and neither will his supporters,” said veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “They want their ‘news’ to affirm them rather than inform them.”
Fox representatives argue that the ratings dip is comparable to what they saw after Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, when conservative viewers temporarily turned away from news they didn’t like — only to come roaring back to cheer on Fox’s adversarial coverage of the sitting president. Indeed, Fox News’s ratings appear to be rebounding somewhat. During the first full week of the Biden administration, the network once again attracted the most total viewers in prime time, though it trailed in the 25-to-54 age group prized by advertisers.
Fox’s brand — the story it promotes to competitors and advertisers — has been built in part on its two decades of cable ratings dominance and its following among the half of the country it says has been neglected by mainstream television news operations. That position has held since 2002, through multiple administrations of both parties.
But however temporary the ratings declines may be, they have caught the attention of the Murdoch family, which controls Fox News’s parent company. The 89-year-old Rupert Murdoch, who recently decried the “awful woke orthodoxy” that he believes suppresses free speech in media, has reengaged in the network’s decisions, according to several people familiar with his focus. He weighed in on several recent network moves.
Fox’s top management is examining the network’s entire news division. While Murdoch and his son, Fox Corp. chief executive Lachlan Murdoch, have more recently given senior executives more time to execute their plans, they have focused their attention on Fox News President Jay Wallace. The senior Murdoch, who recently received his second dose of the coronavirus vaccine, has been fielding a steady stream of callers with advice about how to handle Trump’s political posture, which is cleaving the Republican Party.
“Rupert is watching to see what these interim moves can accomplish,” said one person who had recently spoken with the Fox co-founder, and who described the private conversation on the condition of anonymity.
In an email, Rupert Murdoch wrote that “Lachlan, myself and [Fox News CEO] Suzanne Scott have complete confidence in Jay Wallace.”
Rupert Murdoch was supportive of the recent dismissal of politics editor Chris Stirewalt, who was laid off for his part in what Murdoch viewed as the mishandling of the network’s aggressively early — but ultimately accurate — election-night projection that Joe Biden would win the state of Arizona. The surprising call angered Trump and his allies, who protested it loudly — providing an opportunity for smaller and further-right channels such as Newsmax and One America News to curry favor with the president and his fans by championing his denial of the election results. Fox also jettisoned Bill Sammon, a senior vice president and Washington managing editor, who with Stirewalt sat on the “decision desk” of statisticians and political scientists that helps the network analyze election results.
According to two associates, the elder Murdoch was particularly put off by Stirewalt’s on-air manner, which he perceived as overly casual for a discussion of the election results. When asked about the Trump campaign’s baseless claims of fraud, Stirewalt replied: “Lawsuits, schmawsuits. We haven’t seen any evidence yet that there’s anything wrong.”
“Chris Stirewalt’s leaving had nothing to do with the correct Arizona call by the Fox decision desk,” Murdoch wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
Stirewalt was respected in the newsroom but had another weakness inside the building that predated the Arizona call: his ratings. Fox, which analyzes its ratings on a minute-by-minute basis, found that viewership dropped or plateaued during Stirewalt’s frequent appearances, according to two Fox staffers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. When reached by phone, Stirewalt declined to comment.
By contrast, producers responsible for booking guests noted a reliable uptick in the ratings with every appearance by Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and three-time failed congressional candidate who is a vehement Trump supporter and was recently suspended by Twitter for half a day after he shared a video of Trump repeating false claims of election fraud.
“The new daytime lineup is the work of Ms. Scott and [new managing editor for news] Tom Lowell, and to some extent is still a work in progress,” Rupert Murdoch wrote in his email, hinting at more changes to come.
One move the network is considering is to place Greg Gutfeld, one of the hosts of “The Five,” in a new late-night comedy slot, as the New York Times first reported.
Both Murdochs were involved in the decision to turn Fox’s 7 p.m. weeknight news show hosted by Martha MacCallum into an hour of opinion programming, for which Fox is currently auditioning a roster of hosts, including “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade, Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo and Republican former congressman Trey Gowdy (S.C.).
Fox’s post-election ratings dip is notable mostly because of how untouchable the network seemed just a few months ago. For the third quarter of 2020, its ratings were nearly 50 percent higher than the year before — and Hannity boasted the highest-rated show on cable, with an average audience of 4.35 million viewers.
Since Bill O’Reilly left Fox News in April 2017 amid scandal, Hannity has reliably been the channel’s most-watched host; 2020 was his fourth year in a row as cable’s top personality.
But the recent batch of numbers tell a new story for Hannity as well as Fox. Carlson, who joined the Fox prime-time lineup in 2016 and now occupies the 8 p.m. slot, has beaten Hannity in total viewers for the past five months, a stunning reversal that suggests it’s Carlson who may be on his way to becoming Fox’s biggest draw.
While Hannity, who regularly spoke on the phone with Trump, was Fox News’s most prominent supporter of his presidency, Carlson is seen as more independent. And Carlson, who is eight years younger than Hannity, is said to be close with the Murdoch family, particularly Lachlan.
Hannity took Biden’s win personally. He repeatedly told his viewers during inauguration week that he had tried to “warn” America about Biden’s policies, calling out the new president for signing several executive orders undoing some of Trump’s actions on immigration and the environment.
“We told you so,” Hannity said despondently. “We tried to warn the country. We tried our best. We knew this would happen. None of it’s good for the country.”
Recently, he bemoaned that his book, “Live Free or Die: America (and the World) on the Brink,” which he heavily promoted last summer, failed to persuade the public to stick with Trump for another four years.
“There’s no more books,” he moped to Ingraham on Jan. 14. “I didn’t do one for 10 years. I’m done with the books. I did it to warn America. . . . Now we’re on the ‘brink’ side of things, and I was hoping we wouldn’t get here.”
But Hannity, who signed a new contract in early 2020, says he doesn’t plan to give up. Friends and associates are confident that he’ll work his way out of his funk.
“Sean is extremely well-positioned to play a serious role in holding the Biden administration accountable in both the 2022 cycle and the 2024 elections,” said conservative former CNN contributor Jeffrey Lord. “He will be relentless. Every day.”
And Fox executives will be watching him, and his ratings, minute by minute.