When Sean Hannity handed off his Fox News program to Laura Ingraham last Thursday night, he had company.
On-air switches between cable-news hosts make for bright moments on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, with the audiences at home and producers in studio looking at warm exchanges between personalities like Hannity and Ingraham or Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. The chatter between former CNN hosts Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon generated so much attention that producers often let the segment bleed into Lemon’s first segment of the night and even time reserved for commercials. These days, Hannity has begun letting a new crowd bear witness.
Since January of this year, Hannity has been hosting some editions of his regular 9 p.m. program in front of a live, in-studio audience consisting of a few dozen people. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Fox News viewers can see the crowd as “Hannity” goes to commercial break, or hear them laugh or clap when a guest gets introduced or says something inflammatory or pointed. The host, who has been part of the Fox News primetime schedule since 1996, thinks the assemblage brings “a little more energy… a lot more flavor to it,” he tells Variety in an interview.
Others have tried to master similar concepts. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tried doing his Friday-night program in front of a live crowd in 2019. And one executive at a rival TV-news operation likens the live “Hannity” to “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” the late 1980s sensation in which the host excoriated “pablum-puking liberals” and chain-smoked cigarettes. Hannity’s program never gets that chaotic, though he often tells his audience before going live that “there are no rules” when it come to conduct. Still, he notes, “I’m not blowing smoke in people faces and calling them names.”
While the new “Hannity” format has largely gone unheralded by Fox News — which has not trumpeted the live crowd in promos or dispatched Hannity to discuss the new format in any sort of publicity blitz — it is helping the network’s longest-serving primetime figure stretch new muscles late in his career, and just as Fox News is overhauling some of its most-watched real estate amid a ratings downturn.
On Monday, Hannity will serve as the familiar face as Fox News Channel introduces a new primetime lineup. He will be flanked at 8 p.m. by Jesse Watters, the conservative commentator who is moving up from 7 p.m., and at 10 p.m. by Greg Gutfeld, whose 11 p.m. late-night roundtable has helped Fox harness interest at the end of the day when many people tune to traditional comedy fare like NBC’s “Tonight Show” or Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.” Ingraham, who has been at 10 p.m. since 2017, has moved to 7 p.m. (she sipped ginger ale from a champagne glass Thursday night as Hannity bid her farewell from her time slot). And missing entirely is Tucker Carlson, the 8 p.m. host whose influence among hard-right elements grew exponentially during his tenure on Fox News. He was ousted by Fox’s controlling Murdoch family in the wake of the company’s decision to pay a whopping $787.5 million settlement in a defamation suit brought by the voting-technology company Dominion Voting Systems, leaving Fox News without one of its major draws.
“I’ve been the only person standing in a lineup before,” says the 61-year-old Hannity. “I just don’t let something like that impact me. I focus on ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
Fox News is trying to build something new. To be sure, the outlet continues to dominate its rivals, CNN and MSNBC, handily in terms of viewership. But since Carlson’s ouster, it has seen primetime audiences decline. In the second quarter, its overall primetime audience was off by 25%, according to data from Nielsen, while viewership from people between the ages of 25 and 54 — the demographic most coveted by advertisers — was down by 48%.
Even Wall Street has noticed. “While the new primetime lineup could drive a rebound, we think Fox News is a Show Me viewership story,” said Wells Fargo media analyst Steven Cahall in a research note last week, adding: “The departure of Tucker Carlson has resulted in Fox News’ share of cable news slipping considerably. It’s not clear if its audience has defected cyclically or structurally.”
The new primetime lineup aims to get people back. The Watters and Gutfeld moves give more primetime room to a younger cadre of Fox News hosts. But Hannity remains where he has largely been since being paired with liberal commentator Alan Colmes in 1996. There was some speculation that the network might move Hannity out of primetime as part of its overhaul, potentially to a later part of the evening. After all, Laura Ingraham, a primetime standby, is taking up a job in the early evenings (where, intriguingly, she will be pitted against one of MSNBC’s most outspoken opinion hosts, Joy Reid).
Over the years, Hannity has created controversy both within Fox News and without, but there is good reason for the company to keep him in a familiar place. He has deep ties with longtime Fox News viewers, the ones who haven’t cut the cord and can’t be ignored by cable and satellite distributors. Fox Corp. is in the midst of a cycle of negotiations for carriage of Fox News, Fox Business Network, Fox Sports and affiliates of Fox broadcasting with about a third of its distribution partners. Hannity’s prominent presence on screen is likely to help.
Hannity says he is, like many other prominent hosts and anchors, at the mercy of the company that broadcasts his show. “I have seen it my whole career. People do come and go, and friends of mine have lost jobs, and it is a part of the business I have never liked,” he says. “I can wish it away all I want, but I don’t own the radio show I’m on and I don’t own Fox.”
He has hopes of viewership levels returning. “I think change is hard for any audience,” he says. “I’m beginning to feel and sense the interest in the presidential election is rising, and with that, I think, will come a predictable ratings bump.”
The live-audience format is meant to bring people together. Hannity says the idea to test the concept came as he was doing town-hall interviews with various newsmakers as the coronavirus pandemic was subsiding. “When you are isolated from people for two years, I mean, it’s refreshing to be around people that aren’t wearing masks,” he says. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I went back out on the road in 2022.” Hannity had been tucked away from others for a while. He has often done his radio and TV programs from remote studios.
Now, he has to develop some interesting skills. Hannity warms up the live crowd himself, doing a mix of jokes and celebrity impressions. During a recent phone conversation, he offered up impersonations of former President Bill Clinton; conservative commentators Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh; and even actor Marlon Brando. “It may sound silly in an interview, but it does work when I’m in front of the crowd,” says Hannity. “They do laugh.” He takes questions during commercial breaks. He has purchased Nerf footballs with his show’s logo on them that he passes out to audiences and guests. And he has taken to sticking around after the show is over for as much as half an hour to talk to those who came out to see him.
“It’s a different side of Sean that the viewer at home on TV doesn’t always get to see,” says Tiffany Fazio, the executive producer of “Hannity,” who adds: “He fields so many questions from the audience. People would be surprised.”
Hannity is also doing more town-hall interviews and one-on-ones with newsmakers from different walks of life. Yes, many of them are politicians — a pre-taped session with President Trump is slated for this week. But he has also interviewed California Governor Gavin Newsom, a popular Democrat. There is also interest in cultivating visits from a broader pool, says Fazio, who points to Hannity sit-downs with actor Sean Penn and UFC star Connor McGregor. Fox News isn’t backing off politics, which fuels much of its programming, but executives have told advertisers they are trying to put a spotlight on other topics, including sports and entertainment. “We have a lot of big things already locked down” for the near future, Hannity says.
Though he has outlasted many of his contemporaries at Fox News, Hannity says he still enjoys the work and isn’t considering an exit at present: “I’m not going anywhere as long as they keep giving me the seat.”
Having a live audience can sometimes be problematic. Hannity says protesters once sat in on a program, and were kept off camera. CNN found that a live town-hall audience hooted at moderator Kaitlan Collins as she tried to moderate a program with Trump, undermining her efforts and those of the Warner Bros. Discovery-backed outlet.
“Sometimes, the audience is raucous. They are rowdy, really into it and they hiss and boo and clap,” Hannity notes. Still, things can only go so far. Visitors to the set are admonished before the show goes live about how to act. “I have to be very, very conscious of the fact that the vast majority of my audience is at home,” says Hannity. Fox News executives will be focused on that crowd as well in days to come.
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