Regular viewers of Fox News’s early-evening hours might have been surprised to see one of the network’s highly opinionated morning hosts, Brian Kilmeade, holding forth Monday night with a broadside against “the big tech crackdown on free speech.”

Fox’s 7 p.m. hour has traditionally been reserved for news coverage. But in a shake-up that has raised concerns within its news division, the network last week announced it would bump veteran anchor Martha MacCallum from that slot — part of a larger shift toward the conservative-leaning punditry programming that made Fox the most-watched cable channel in 2020.

Kilmeade is among the six opinionators who will get informal week-long tryouts to become the permanent host of the 7 p.m. hour, which is being called “Fox News Primetime.” Also getting a turn are business news anchor Maria Bartiromo and conservative Fox News contributors Katie Pavlich, Rachel Campos-Duffy and former congressman Trey Gowdy, as well as commentator Mark Steyn, a favorite guest of Fox ratings champ Tucker Carlson. (The names were first reported by the Los Angeles Times.)

By trading an hour of news for opinion, the network quietly shifted the balance of programming, from one that gave a slight majority of its time to news — 11 hours compared with nine for opinion — to an even split. (Fox considers its afternoon panel show “Outnumbered” part of its news division, even though it often focuses on culture-war topics, like Monday’s segment on “cancel culture,” because lead panelist Harris Faulkner is a news anchor.)

The prime-time shift has rattled some staffers at the network — “a message that they care about opinion more than news,” said one news-side employee who was not authorized to comment publicly and so spoke on the condition of anonymity.

There was particular concern voiced Monday when Bartiromo’s name became public as a potential replacement, considering the criticism she has faced for comments she made questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election.

Bartiromo’s name and show were mentioned multiple times in a Dec. 10 legal letter from the voting technology company Smartmatic demanding the network retract “dozens of false and misleading statements regarding Smartmatic.” In response, Fox aired a short segment that corrected falsities about Smartmatic on several of its programs — though when it was Bartiromo’s turn to introduce the segment, she added as a postscript, “We will keep investigating.”

“It is ludicrous and disheartening that we are rewarding [Bartiromo] with a prime-time spot, knowing full well she is among the most responsible for propagating the big election lie,” a second news division staffer said.

“Maybe they wanted that sizzling-hot opinion anger,” said another.

For current and former Fox News employees who spoke to The Washington Post, the switch to opinion at 7 p.m. was a sign that the network’s news division has lost the larger battle to the opinion division, which generates far more viewers.

“They want to restore their conservative base. They’re going to serve the people who brought them to the dance,” said Carl Cameron, who spent 22 years as a reporter for Fox News before retiring as the network’s chief political correspondent in 2017. “Conservatives are going to want to hear what’s wrong with Joe Biden. It’s easier for Fox to beat Newsmax and everybody else back into the woods than it is for them to try to compete with the real journalism networks.”

As co-host of the network’s top-rated morning show, Kilmeade is seen internally and externally as the most likely candidate to get the job at 7 p.m., providing a like-minded lead-in to fellow opinion shows hosted by Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. (Though weekend morning show co-host Pete Hegseth was viewed by many Fox observers as a potential fit as well, he is not among the initial tryout group.)

The network said in October that it “regularly considers programming changes,” and it has suggested the lineup adjustments are not tied to ratings concerns. Still, Fox has experienced an across-the-board ratings downturn since the election, according to pre- and post-election Nielsen data provided to The Post — down 37 percent between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and down 35 percent from 4 to 8 p.m., compared with the month before the election. CNN and MSNBC, meanwhile, have gained during those hours.

At 7 p.m., the hour formerly hosted by MacCallum, the network has been down an average of 1.35 million total viewers, or 42 percent, compared with its pre-election audience, even as her show beat the competition for the year 2020. CNN and MSNBC are on the upswing. At 7 p.m., CNN anchor Erin Burnett has increased her audience by 25 percent, while Joy Reid has increased her MSNBC audience by 9 percent. The biggest percentage increase has gone to Greg Kelly, who hosts a 7 p.m. show on the right-wing cable news upstart Newsmax — his show is up 452 percent, 621,000 viewers, since the election.

Those trends have seen Fox fall to third place, behind CNN and MSNBC, for the opening weeks of 2021, in every key metric.

MacCallum, for her part, pledged her new show, at 3 p.m., will be the same as her 7 p.m. show. Still, her news hour took on a surprisingly rightward tilt during its inaugural airing Monday: Guests included millennial conservative pundit Charlie Kirk, Fox News conservative contributor Sara Carter and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, who has become popular on the political right as a skeptic of coronavirus precautions. Berenson said on the show Monday that mask-wearing has made “absolutely zero difference” in alleviating the pandemic, despite the scientific consensus to the contrary.