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How ‘Fox News Specialists’ Emerged as Potent, Youthful Face of Network in Post-O’Reilly Era

”I got called and Mr. Murdoch said… ‘We want to keep you in the center seat,“ Eric Bolling tells TheWrap

With Bill O’Reilly out, Fox News had to reshuffle its decks — and fast. The network hasn’t missed a beat, continuing its 15-year run atop all direct competitors. And its reach is growing: Fox News been the most-watched network among all of basic cable for four consecutive quarters.

A good portion of that success is due to the smooth launch of “Fox News Specialists,” a new show geared to a younger audience co-hosted by Eric Bolling, Katherine Timpf and Eboni K. Williams.

“You have to hook the audience,” Bolling told TheWrap in a recent interview. “You need them to like you as a group, as a unit and be part of your conversation.”

So how does he do that?

“Specialists” is essentially a revamped version of “The Five,” but with younger co-hosts surrounding Bolling and two guests who specialize in whatever is dominating the news cycle on a particular day.

“The Five” moved from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., replacing “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which moved up an hour to replace “The O’Reilly Factor.” After all the movement, the 5 p.m. slot was vacant and Fox News had an opportunity to come up with something to appeal to a more youthful, emerging audience.

“We all come with different fan bases that are separate,” said co-host Timpf, who also spoke with TheWrap. “I think I have a younger vibe, too. Not just age. Of course, that makes a difference,” she added.

Considering that audiences are brand new to “Specialists,” the show has had a strong launch, averaging 1.9 million viewers during the second quarter of 2017. That’s not far behind “The Five,” which was regularly among the most-watched shows in cable news with an average of 2.3 million viewers in 2016.

Bolling, 54, an original co-host of “The Five,” was a familiar face to Fox News viewers. But the 33-year-old Williams and 28-year-old Timpf represent younger voices that Fox News lacked. When the decision to shift “The Five” to primetime was made, Bolling initially thought he would make the move but Fox News execs had different plans.

“I got called and Mr. Murdoch said, ‘We want to keep you at 5 p.m. We want to keep you in the center seat, we want to keep the audience and we’re going to figure out what we’re going to do with it,'” Bolling said.

For a few days, all the media world knew was that Bolling would be part of a new show but details were scarce. Timpf was approached early in the process and was “shocked” and “excited” at the possibility of joining Bolling, but the format of the show was kept under wraps until Williams joined and Fox News announced the details.

“I was tasked to maintain an audience,” Bolling said. “I think we’re doing an amazing job of doing that.”

“Specialists” is basically a remixed version of the show it replaced, but a few minor differences made a big impact on planning: Three of the five hosts are permanent, while the other two are experts in whatever is dominating the news cycle.

“‘The Five’ was the first ensemble show… it was the first five person, substantial ensemble for a full hour with no guests on Fox News. We were breaking new ground. That was six years ago,” Bolling said.

While a lot of cable news hosts might fume if they got replaced as their show moved to primetime, Bolling remained cool when asked about it, saying he “loves” Fox News and is willing to do whatever helps the network.

“I do what I’m tasked to do. My task was to maintain the 5 p.m. audience to set up early prime into primetime,” he said.

The decision by Fox News execs to keep Bolling in his familiar time slot appears to be paying off. Bolling said that “The Five” took time to develop and the chemistry on “Specialists” is a work-in-progress but he’s happy with the results so far. He explained that viewers of “The Five” are expected to join in on the conversation, which is easier when you’re getting to know the same five people everyday.

“When you come up on ‘The Specialists,’ you have three people that you see everyday and two new people,” Bolling said. “It’s a plus and it’s a minus.”

He said the benefits are providing the audience with two new faces everyday — the experts. However, the format “never allows for the five-person chemistry to develop” because the show constantly rotates people in and out. Because of this, Bolling pushed for producers to allow the three regulars to open the show and bring on the two guests after a few minutes of dialogue.

“It’s really important for the three of us to maintain the chemistry,” Bolling said.

Williams told TheWrap that decision, which was implemented during the second week of the show, was an important change that “really set the tone,” giving viewers an initial taste of herself, Bolling and Timpf before polarizing guests, such as Mark Cuban and Stephen A. Smith, join the set.

Timpf said there is certainly pressure trying to fill the shoes of a successful brand like “The Five,” but said she wouldn’t have chosen this career path is she didn’t thrive on pressure.

“It’s obviously a high-pressure career and it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to let that bother you or if you’re going to look at it like an exciting opportunity,” Timpf said.

Williams is not shy about her success, saying she “absolutely” thought she’s be in this position at some point. The first-generation college graduate started at University of North Carolina when she was only 16 years old and maintains her active law license despite pivoting her career to broadcasting. She is well aware that being a black female with a voice on Fox News is a sign that the network is changing.

“The decision to put me on this show is a very powerful one,” Williams told TheWrap. “I’m very proud of being a part of the expansion of what Fox News Channel can be.”

Williams isn’t the typical Fox News pundit from a political standpoint, but said she was never concerned that she would be used as a liberal punching bag on the “Specialists.” She said that a lot of time has been spent fighting to show that she’s a “fair-minded and reasonable” person, who happens to be a registered Independent.

“I really can honestly say, not any person, not any producer or co-host has ever really told me I need to be a certain way. I’ve always had permission to authentic to my own voice,” Williams said.

Williams said the super-liberal and super-conservative punching bag roles that appear on other networks are stale and dated, which is why her point of view works so well.

“The audience wants more… We are not doing that crap,” Williams said. “We’re having authentic dialogue and elevating the conversation, pushing it forward. That’s what younger people are interested in.”

Timpf’s path to Fox News was different, but equally impressive. After college, she interned at the network’s Los Angeles bureau and passed on an opportunity to attend Colombia University journalism school to avoid debt, choosing instead to waitress and perform as a stand-up comedian. She eventually landed a gig as a traffic reporter, but was quickly laid off

“I was really bad at it,” Timpf said.

She was equally into comedy and politics, pointing to Greg Gutfeld as a role model. A job as a digital news editor at the Washington Times brought her from L.A. to D.C. and Timpf parlayed the gig into a bigger role including video and radio hits. She was noticed by the right people and eventually started appearing on “Fox & Friends,” often taking a bus from D.C. to New York City to record a three-minute spot.

Timpf joked the biggest change in her life since landing the gig is that people have been using her photo for fake profiles on dating apps, while Williams had a more serious take on her newfound fame.

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime, to be on Fox News Channel,” Williams said. “I’m humbled by it… We get to humanize a point of view that maybe isn’t the prevailing one, necessarily.”