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This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Fox News Channel’s devotion to commentary-driven programming in primetime officially has softened. On Oct. 7, the network unveiled a revamped lineup that segued daytime news anchor Megyn Kelly into conservative commentator Sean Hannity‘s 9 p.m. digs and veteran newsman Shepard Smith into an on-call role throughout the evening.
FNC’s first big schedule adjustment in a decade is significant for its lack of emphasis on punditry — opening up the most watched hours of the evening to news coverage as Hannity’s more divisive brand of gab shuffles off to lower expectations at 10 p.m.
“We are beginning to dramatically change the way news is presented to the public,” said chairman and CEO Roger Ailes in a memo to staffers on the eve of its unveiling (and the net’s 17th anniversary). The changes could be written off as a reaction to Hannity’s ratings drop — first-place FNC still maintains its 12-year dominance across primetime with an average 1.75 million viewers and 293,000 adults 25-to-54, but the third quarter saw it fall 20 percent compared with the same period in 2012. Rivals CNN and MSNBC also have shed viewers this year, so more likely Ailes’ strategy is designed to position Kelly, 42, as the future face of the network thanks to Bill O’Reilly‘s lead-in.
“Fox News has been absolutely remarkable in the world of TV for the almost nonexistent changes to its lineup in over a decade,” notes news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “It goes against all rules of television to have that much stability. You’ve got to constantly refresh yourself just to stay where you are. The size of Fox’s audience is stable, but it is aging.”
The immediate results of the Fox shuffle were mixed. The new lineup’s first night out saw viewership gains across the board, but Kelly lost the demo to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow — whose saw strong returns thanks to the lefter net’s ongoing coverage of the government shutdown.
Programming executive vp Bill Shine tells THR that building a younger audience is a constant concern, if not the driving force in these latest changes that Ailes has had in mind for some time. “Do we hope we get younger viewers? Absolutely,” he says. “But that’s everybody’s goal. It’s certainly CNN’s and MSNBC’s goal.” And Shine also insists that Kelly’s news-focused contribution previously was filled by Greta Van Susteren at 10 p.m.
Van Susteren moved to 7 p.m. to accommodate Hannity, so the balance of conservative voices technically is status quo. That, however, could be determined by how big of a role Smith plays. Long regarded as the network’s least-politicized talent, Smith returned to FNC on Oct. 7 in a pricey new studio that resembles the set of HBO’s The Newsroom on steroids. From there, he’ll interrupt programming as breaking news dictates.
“I don’t think you have to be an opinion host to offer compelling television,” says Kelly, who promises balanced coverage. “You can be interesting and at times even provocative without saying how you feel on an issue.”
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