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How ‘Loyal Dog’ Sean Hannity Went From King of Fox News to Has-Been


Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

During the Trump administration, Sean Hannity was on top of the world. With the ousting of longtime Fox News colleague and nemesis Bill O’Reilly in April 2017 over allegations of sexual misconduct, Hannity quickly rose from second fiddle to most-watched host in the news. cable. And he stayed there for years.

Not only did the veteran Fox News host draw nearly four million viewers each night while cheering on Donald Trump, but he was also widely considered the then president’s shadow chief of staff. When Trump wasn’t calling on his show for an “exclusive” interview, Hannity would call the president late at night and serve as an informal adviser.

But toward the end of Trump’s term, Tucker Carlson — who essentially replaced O’Reilly on prime time — supplanted Hannity as Fox News’ top dog. Conservative cable viewers seemed far more interested in Carlson’s brand of taking Trumpism’s far-right nationalism, fervent anti-immigrant rhetoric and COVID truthfulness and running with him on the increasingly outdated Trump booster. of Hannity (and the insatiable obsession of Hillary Clinton).

And the longer Hannity — now the longest-serving cable news host in history — navigated a post-Trump world, the further he tumbled to the top of the ratings.

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“We’re the envy of every other network for having to compete with ourselves after beating everything else in cable, but no other host in the industry has the longevity and staying power of Sean Hannity. “, wrote a spokesperson for the network. “FOX News Media is beyond proud to have its number one show at 9 p.m. as an integral part of our primetime lineup and a vital part of our success for 26 years.”

Having already achieved a solid third place in the Fox News viewership in the 2020 election, the late afternoon panel The five— featuring popular Fox News veterans Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters — finally passed Hannity for second place in August 2021, and hasn’t looked back since. In fact, the war-focused cultural gabfest even surpassed Tucker Carlson tonight as the most-watched show in all of cable news. (Carlson’s show, however, consistently attracts more viewers in the coveted 25-54 demographic.)

Following Fox News’ brief ratings slump following Trump’s election defeat, the network shook up its weekday programming and leaned more into overt right-wing commentary. This resulted in 7 p.m. “direct news” anchor Martha MacCallum starting mid-afternoon and replacing her hour with a nightly opinion talk show.

Finally, after a year of managing the timeslot with a rotating series of hosts, the network rewarded Watters with the hour last January. Known for his ambush interviews and penchant for wooing controversy, the former O’Reilly lackey star quickly rose to fame at Fox. Like Gutfeld, who also recently launched a popular weekday talk show, Watters hosted a popular weekend program for several years.

Jesse Watters in prime time was an immediate hit with right-wing cable giant audiences, instantly dominating its timeslot and quickly becoming a top five show on cable.

In the spring, the early evening program overtook Hannity’s prime-time offering in total audience, averaging 2.92 million viewers compared to Hannity’s 2.89 million in April, although Hannity had maintained a slim lead over Watters in the key demographic.

Hannity’s show managed to fight its way to a third-place finish for the second quarter of the year, averaging 2.73 million total viewers to Watters’ 2.69 million, while beating Jesse Watters in prime time in advertising demographics by nearly 50,000 viewers. But June and July, separately, told a different story. Watters once again edged out Hannity in total viewership in June, while closing the gap between 25 and 54 year olds. The following month, Watters extended his lead in overall viewership by over 100,000 viewers and closed in on Hannity’s 13,000 in the key advertising demographic.

Of course, while Hannity’s dominance on Fox is long over, he continues to consistently top his competitors on CNN and MSNBC (especially now that Rachel Maddow only airs once a week). Additionally, Hannity’s show gained in overall viewership compared to the same period last year, up 7% of total viewership.

The sustained ancestry of Carlson, Gutfeld, and Watters — more “own the libs” culture warriors than card-carrying Trumpists — while Hannity, a member of Trump’s inner circle, continues to sink cannot simply be attributed to a growing perception that the network is distancing itself from Trump’s personality cult.

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Even though Murdoch-owned editorial boards have assaulted Trump over the explosive Jan. 6 revelations and Fox News hasn’t interviewed the ex-president in months, Trump’s presence still eclipses that of everyone else at Fox. Moreover, even though they are less directly involved in Trumpworld, Carlson, Gutfeld and Watters continue to interfere on behalf of the ex-president, often singing his praises, or yuck with him at his Saudi-backed golf tournament.

Instead, the most likely explanation comes from Hannity’s inability to keep up with the changing right-wing media landscape, which has long since shifted onto darker ideological ground after decades of advocacy and supporters of the Republican Party above all else.

“The fundamental thing about Hannity is that he’s not an ideas guy. He’s a cheerleader,” Matthew Sheffield, a former right-wing media outlet turned critic, explained. Before launching Flux , an independent outlet, Sheffield was co-founder of NewsBusters, a right-wing watchdog regularly featured on Hannity’s show and Fox programming.In recent years, Sheffield has become a vocal critic of conservative media, devoting a much of his energy in denouncing how “damaging” this has been for the American public.

“[Hannity] is not a creative person. He just wants the same guests talking about the same things all the time,” he continued. “And for the most angry Christian types, the reactionaries, that is no longer enough for them. They want more anger, more ambition. And they certainly don’t want to hear what Lindsey Graham has to say.

This analysis of Hannity’s downfall was echoed by Andrew Lawrence, deputy director of rapid response at liberal watchdog Media Matters for America.

“I think the creation of the Republican Party, their influence diminishes a bit,” Lawrence said. “I think they’re kind of following the example of the ‘blood and soil’ base, where Tucker draws his influence from. And I think Fox News kind of jumped into that to try to appeal to that “blood and soil” base more than getting Republicans elected.

Sheffield, meanwhile, noted that hosts like Carlson, Gutfeld and Watters seem to understand better than Hannity that Fox’s die-hard audiences generally believe themselves to be constantly beleaguered and wronged – that they’re outnumbered, hated and excluded from. a largely liberal popular elite. Culture.

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“What Watters gives them is he tries to knock it down and mock the left. That’s most of what he does,” Sheffield explained. “It sets a better emotional tone for them to make sarcastic remarks about Democrats rather than just trotting [establishment Republican lawmakers] still outside.”

Lawrence also suggested that Watters et al better fit the network’s current business model, which largely revolves around “shattering outrage cycles” and stoking culture war controversy. Hannity, on the other hand, only seems to make headlines for her commitment to Trump’s tenure. “His controversies come [when] it was revealed in a congressional hearing that his texts to Trump said x, y or z,” Lawrence remarked.

Another possible explanation for Hannity’s decline among Fox viewers, Sheffield said, is her more frequent guests. While Senator Graham, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Fox News punching bag Geraldo Rivera were once staples of the network’s overall programming, these guests are now viewed with general distrust of the from the ideological right.

“They hate these people. And if you watch those other shows, they don’t bring those people in,” Sheffield claimed. “It’s like a loyal dog that keeps coming home because that’s the only thing it knows.”

Lawrence was much more concise in his overall assessment of Hannity’s decline: “His show is just bad TV at this point.”

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