Fox News’ Primetime Lineup Shake-Up Might Secure Ratings Success – but at What Cost?

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On the heels of the Dominion Voting Systems settlement, media experts warn that Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld might prove to be a “liability”

Fox News' primetime lineup hosts, from, left, Laura Ingraham, Jesse Watters, Sean Hannity and Greg Gutfeld. (Fox News)

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Fox News’ lineup changes will shift two familiar faces, Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld, to primetime — a move that is bound to secure a ratings bump while ushering in a new brand of extremism that media experts warn could be a “liability” for the network in the wake of the Dominion Voting Systems settlement.

Announced just over two months after Tucker Carlson’s abrupt departure, Watters has effectively been crowned his successor after taking over the 8 p.m. timeslot, which had been occupied by “Fox News Tonight” since Carlson’s absence.

“Crowning odious Jesse Watters as the new face of Fox News is a reflection of Fox’s dogged commitment to bigotry and deceit as well as an indication of their desperation to regain audience share,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning media watchdog organization Media Matters. “It won’t work, though. Fox’s audience abandoned the network post-Tucker, and those viewers never returned. Jesse Watters’ buffoonish segments of bigotry and culture war vitriol won’t fix that problem for Fox; he’s a liability and a ticking time bomb.”

Former Fox News host Megyn Kelly echoed Carusone’s lack of confidence in Watters’ ability to move the ratings needle in the absence of Carlson, saying on her Monday show that “this is [Fox News] saying they think Jesse Waters is the solution to winning back their audience that they lost when Tucker left,” before arguing that “Moving Jesse to eight is not going to do it.”

“They took a massive risk in getting rid of their one unique draw,” Kelly said, adding that Carlson fans have since flocked to smaller right-leaning cable news network Newsmax or the Internet — perhaps following Carlson to his Twitter show. “They’ve discovered a new medium and a new way of taking in the news, which was already a massive threat to Fox and even more so now.”

A spokesperson for Fox News didn’t provide a comment for this story.

Ratings-wise, Carusone and Kelly aren’t wrong about a drop following Tucker’s exit, though it remains to be seen how the new lineup will fare for the conservative news network. Within three weeks of a slew of Fox News anchors taking the reins of “Fox News Tonight,” ratings cut in half during Carlson’s former 8 p.m. timeslot, dropping from an average viewership of 3.02 million during the controversial anchor’s last week on air to an average of 1.53 million total viewers. It’s worth noting that the network opted to shift Watters rather than give the slot to one of the rotating “Fox News Tonight” hosts, which included Brian Kilmeade, Lawrence Jones, Kayleigh McEnany and Will Cain, among others.

Centering Watters is an obvious move for the network, as his show drew in the highest total primetime viewership in two months following Carlson’s exit — scoring a viewership of 1.95 million during its 7 p.m. timeslot from April 24 to May 28, and an average viewership of 2.05 million from May 29 to June 23. For comparison, “Fox News Tonight” brought in 1.54 million total viewers and 1.66 million total viewers during the two time periods, respectively.

In other schedule shifts: Beginning July 17, “The Ingraham Angle” will kick off with a new 7 p.m. start before “Jesse Watters Primetime” moves into the 8 p.m. timeslot. “Hannity” will remain at 9 p.m. while “Gutfeld!” moves up an hour into primetime at 10 p.m.

While “Hannity” netted a higher total viewership than “Gutfeld!” during the two months, the appeal for Gutfeld comes through in demo viewers. During the same two-month period after Carlson’s exit, “Gutfeld!” drew in the highest demo viewership when compared to “Jesse Watters Primetime,” “Fox News Tonight,” “The Ingraham Angle” and “Hannity,” bringing in 216,000 adults 25-54 in the first month of Tucker’s exit and 234,000 viewers in the demo during the second month. For comparison, Watters brought in 174,000 and 182,000 demo viewers, respectively, while “Fox News Tonight” averaged 153,000 and 161,000 viewers in the demo, respectively — the lowest demo viewership of the compared shows.

While the post-Carlson era has opened up opportunities for unprecedented ratings victories for MSNBC — with the NBCUniversal-owned network recently outnumbering Fox News in primetime demo ratings for the second week in a row — the newly unveiled lineup might work to ensure the status quo of sweeping every measurable ratings category.

On the heels of the network settling with Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit for $787.5 million, which brought Carlson and other Fox News hosts like Ingraham and Hannity under scrutiny, Carusone pointed out the extremism embraced by Watters and Gutfeld may bring further troubles to the network.

“Dominion exposed Fox News for the partisan propaganda operation that it is,” Carusone continued. “Instead of trying to adjust and attempt to establish a beachhead of credibility, the network is going back out to sea by leaning in on their most toxic personalities — like Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters. The network is transparently appealing to the fringes here.”

Both Watters and Gutfeld have a history in engaging in racist and sexist commentary while on air, with recent occasions including Watters arguing Black Americans should direct their concerns away from white supremacist shooters to “absent fathers” and “education issues,” while Gutfeld praised a high school teacher charged with having an illegal sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student.

In contrast, Brian Stelter, the former host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” noted that the decision avoided any costly moves for the network and was hesitant to name Watters as the “new Tucker,” writing on Twitter, “The network is playing it safe and conserving cash, rather than making any bold moves or adding ‘another Tucker’ to the lineup.”

As the 2024 election looms ahead and Donald Trump comes further into the picture as a potential GOP nominee, it remains to be seen how Fox News will handle further commentary from its primetime hosts given the former president’s longtime support from Watters, Gutfeld and Hannity.

“Advertisers and cable providers beware,” Carusone concluded, “Things at Fox News are about to get a whole lot worse.”