Fox News Shake-Up Leaves Sean Hannity in Ratings Race With Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity - Split - Getty - H 2017
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Since Maddow's ratings ascension in March, she has beaten Hannity among adults 25-54 every month and has done the same with direct competitor 'The Five' since its post-O'Reilly move to 9 p.m.

The 9 p.m. hour in cable news is shaping up to be the latest closely watched ratings race between Fox News and MSNBC. Starting Monday, Fox News host Sean Hannity will return to his old time slot, and will be matched up against one of his foes, MSNBC star anchor Rachel Maddow.

The shift was made possible by the cancellation of Fox News' 5 p.m. program The Specialists, which made it necessary for current 9 p.m. occupant The Five to move back to its namesake slot. On his show on Monday night, Hannity said he's happy to be back at 9 p.m., and made it clear that he has MSNBC and Maddow's show on his mind.

"By the way, all my career I've started behind the eight-ball," he said. "In the month of August, for example, we were No. 2 in cable, because for some bizarre reason Conspiracy Theory TV is working right now. But, well, with your help, and if you help us spread the word, give us a little time, we're planning on being No. 1 with your help."

"Conspiracy Theory TV" is a clear reference to Maddow's show. On a late May episode of Hannity, the Fox News host called her "the champion of pushing unhinged, bizarre conspiracies," and he regularly refers to her as a conspiracy theorist for her coverage of potential collusion between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government, a popular storyline on MSNBC.

But, while Hannity seems eager to take on Maddow, industry sources cautioned that the 9 p.m. contest between the two big-shot hosts is only a competition by the literal definition of the word. Hannity and Maddow have almost completely distinct, mature audiences, making it unlikely that either host will be able to pick off viewers from the other. Still, the networks might try.

"By slotting Hannity at 9 p.m. Fox News is attacking MSNBC's strongest time period with the intention of peeling off some of their least loyal viewers," said Joe Peyronnin, a former president of Fox News and current Hofstra University journalism professor. "Hannity will likely verbally snipe and criticize Maddow, a la Trump, in an effort to weaken her ratings."

Industry analyst Andrew Tyndall said it makes sense for Fox News to put Hannity, arguably the network's biggest star, in the 9 p.m. slot, where he can help Tucker Carlson's show before his and Laura Ingraham's brand-new 10 p.m. show, The Ingraham Angle, after.

Tyndall said the real competition between Hannity and Maddow is for ratings, which are a point of pride and promotion for cable television companies and their media relations departments. But the outcome of this ratings contest "will not affect the type of programing that is available (both are well-known entities) and will only marginally benefit either channel's bottom line," he said.

Comparing Maddow and Hannity's current ratings averages is a little tricky, considering their different time slots and the lower viewer levels at 10 p.m. But, the current momentum is with Maddow. Not only is her show narrowly leading all of cable news among adults 25-54, year-to-date, with an average 591,000 viewers in the demo, the most recent months have given her MSNBC hour its most decisive victories. In August, The Rachel Maddow Show delivered an average 2.8 million viewers and 630,000 adults 25-54. (Hannity, Fox News' most-watched telecast for that month, took an average 2.7 million in total viewers and 590,000 in the news demo.)

Since Maddow's ratings ascension in March, she's topped Hannity among adults 25-54 every month and has done the same with direct competitor The Five since its post-Bill O'Reilly move to 9 p.m. The battle for total viewers has seen more back and forth. Hannity still leads Maddow, year-to-date, and has beaten out Maddow two of the last six months. Both shows are up significantly from a year ago, despite 2016 bringing lofty highs across cable news.

Neither Fox News nor MSNBC would make their 9 p.m. hosts available to discuss the competition, which seems to indicate that the networks are not chest-thumping, at least for now. An MSNBC source said the network is unfazed by the latest shift in Fox News' schedule, is not concerned about losing viewers and doesn't have an interest in picking a fight with Fox News.