Fox News has been in this situation several times before: A top-rated, personality-driven, lightning rod of a host with a fiercely loyal audience goes down in flames, only to see a new, even more powerful personality rise from the ashes.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” may be gone from the network’s juggernaut 8 p.m. hour, after Fox abruptly pulled the plug Monday morning. But if history is any guide, someone will soon take up that billowing, red, right-wing primetime flag — and at this point, it almost doesn’t matter who that person turns out to be.
Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren and even Roger Ailes — each left at the height of their powers, and each was successfully backfilled from the Fox News bench. While there’s no glaringly obvious successor for “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Fox has options, and the brand has shown no weakness, at least in ratings, despite weeks of badly bruising news.
For now, Fox is running a “news hour” with rotating anchors where “Tonight” used to be, and the time slot is so strong that it actually managed virtually unchanged ratings compared to Carlson’s final Friday broadcast, with “The Five” regular Brian Kilmeade taking the first turn Monday before 2.6 million average viewers.
Whoever wins the coveted slot for good will surely debut to millions of nightly viewers, and instantly hold the inside track to becoming the new alpha voice of the conservative-talk movement. Carlson inherited the unofficial mantle when radio renegade Rush Limbaugh died a few months after the 2020 presidential election.
As for Carlson, he may go silent for months or even years, depending on the nature of his exit agreement. He certainly said nothing of substance about that in a Wednesday video post on Twitter.
Carlson was reportedly making more than $15 million per year on a contract of unknown duration when he was canceled, and was in the process of re-negotiating through 2029. If it turns out that Fox fired him “for cause,” the formerly highest-paid personality in cable news may be free to pursue anything he likes. But if Fox honors whatever remains of his contract, or has a non-compete baked in, it can keep him sidelined for awhile.
Carlson has made no mention so far of his own future plans, except for a cryptic message posted to his tuckercarlson.com site just hours after his Monday firing, urging people to sign up (with their email address and/or phone number, of course) to “find out what Tucker’s up to next.”
Whether his absence is short or long, someone will scramble on top — the conservative commentary ecosystem has always been hierarchical, and nature abhors a vacuum.
It’s worth noting that before he became the face of Fox News and a Trumpism hero, Carlson was something of a serial sideshow man — the notoriously preppy, axe-grinding journeyman talking head who struggled to gain audience or influence with shows at CNN and MSNBC. He had been kicking around Fox as a guest host and commentator since 2009, before finally launching “Tucker Carlson Tonight” mere days after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and quickly took over the 9 p.m. time slot of a departing Megyn Kelly.
When Fox ratings titan Bill O’Reilly exited in a whoosh of sexual misconduct allegations in April 2017, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” had been doing well in the later hour, growing an audience of more than 3 million average nightly viewers — but was by no means was seen as an obvious, or particularly sexy, successor choice.
Neither would be Jesse Watters, who’s arguably sitting nearest to where Carlson was when O’Reilly went down. Like Carlson at the time, Watters was recently promoted, from his weekend “Watters World” bloc to a permanent 7 p.m. slot with “Jesse Watters Primetime.” Watters is also a star of Fox’s wildly successful roundtable show “The Five,” which had been recently edging out “Tucker Carlson Tonight” as the network’s No. 1 ratings winner.
But Watters is a young 44, and carries some public-relations baggage of his own. That might not bode well for his chances at the 8 p.m. gig, as consensus is building around the theory that Rupert Murdoch just simply had enough Tucker Carlson drama for one lifetime — from the various lawsuits, dubious on-air claims, advertiser fallout and the host’s severe criticisms of network leaders unearthed in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit.
Watters’ track record has nothing like that level of Murdoch-family irritants, but if stability and ad-friendly commentary are a priority after tangling with the reportedly “unmanageable” Carlson, they may look elsewhere. Watters, whose “Watters World” started as a man-on-the-street segment for “The O’Reilly Factor” and became its own show in 2015, has faced blistering criticism for segments and comments deemed racist or sexist.
The first signs of new heights for “Tucker Carlson Tonight” emerged in June of 2020, as it became the highest-rated cable news show in the U.S. with more than four million nightly average viewers. But all those eyeballs came in the wake of Carlson’s remarks criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement, causing dozens of companies, including Disney and T-Mobile, to pull their ads.
Then in July, CNN Business unearthed problematic social media posts by his head writer, and more advertisers pulled out. The show’s revenue was no longer commensurate with its massive audience, a situation Fox would like to avoid reprising with its next 8 p.m. host.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” peaked in October 2020, with an average of more than 5 million viewers, a number Carlson couldn’t sustain in the aftermath of the election. But as linear TV shrinks across the board, his recent average of 3 million-plus nightly viewers in a non-election year still made the show one of the most-watched hours on cable TV, period.
It seems highly unlikely that Fox would want to move either “The Five” or “Gutfeld!” to 8 p.m., as each show is far outperforming expectations in non-primetime slots. Same goes for Laura Ingraham’s “The Ingraham Angle,” which occasionally ranks No. 3 among Fox’s nightly lineup at 10 p.m. Eastern.
If Fox’s streak of primetime king-making is ever to be broken, the deed will be done by its aging audience: Pew Research said in 2019 that nearly 70% of survey respondents who said Fox was their main news source were 50 years or older.