As Fox News rebuilds Primetime, Sean Hannity explains how a live “Rowdy” audience adds new life to his show

When Sean Hannity handed his Fox News program to Laura Ingraham last Thursday night, he had company.

On-air exchanges between cable news hosts create shining moments on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, with audiences at home and producers in the studio watching hearty exchanges between the likes of Hannity and Ingraham or Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. The chatter between former CNN hosts Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon garnered so much attention that producers often let the segment bleed into Lemon’s first segment of the night and even time for commercials. These days, Hannity has started letting a new crowd testify.

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Since January of this year, Hannity has been hosting select editions of its regular 9 p.m. schedule to a live studio audience of a few dozen people. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Fox News viewers can see the crowd as “Hannity” heads to the commercial break, or hear them laugh or cheer when a guest is introduced or says something inflammatory or pointed. The host, who has been on Fox News’ primetime schedule since 1996, thinks the blend brings “a little more energy…a lot more flavor,” he said. Variety in an interview.

Others have tried to master similar concepts. In 2019, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tried to do his Friday night show in front of a live crowd. where the host excoriated “pablum-spewing liberals” and chain-smoked cigarettes. Hannity’s schedule never gets so chaotic, though he often tells his audience before going live that “there are no rules” when it comes to conduct. Still, he notes, “I don’t blow smoke in people’s faces and call them names.”

While the new “Hannity” format wasn’t announced by Fox News — which didn’t trumpet the live crowd in promos or send Hannity to discuss the new format in any sort of publicity blitz — it is helping the network’s longest-serving prime-time figure stretch some new muscles at the end of his career, and just as Fox News is revising some of its most-watched real estate amid a drop in ratings. grades.

On Monday, Hannity will serve as a familiar face as Fox News Channel presents new primetime programming. He will be flanked at 8 p.m. by Jesse Watters, the conservative commentator who moves on at 7 p.m., and at 10 p.m. by Greg Gutfeld, whose late-night roundtable at 11 p.m. helped Fox generate late-day interest. when many people watch traditional comedies like NBC’s “Tonight Show” or Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.” Ingraham, who has been at 10 p.m. since 2017, has moved to 7 p.m. (she sipped ginger ale from a glass of champagne on Thursday night as Hannity bid her goodbye from her timeslot). And he entirely misses Tucker Carlson, the 8 p.m. host whose influence among far-right elements grew exponentially during his tenure on Fox News. He was ousted by the Murdoch family who controlled Fox following the company’s decision to pay a whopping $787.5 million settlement in a defamation lawsuit brought by voting technology firm Dominion Voting Systems, leaving Fox News without one of its main prints.

“I’ve been the only person in a queue before,” said 61-year-old Hannity. “I don’t let something like that affect me. I focus on ‘If you build it, they will come.’

Fox News is trying to build something new. Granted, the outlet continues to dominate its rivals, CNN and MSNBC, easily in terms of viewership. But since Carlson’s ousting, prime-time ratings have dwindled. In the second quarter, its overall prime-time audience fell 25%, according to Nielsen data, while audiences for people aged 25 to 54 – the demographic group most coveted by advertisers – declined. by 48%.

Even Wall Street noticed it. “While new primetime programming could lead to a rebound, we believe Fox News is a Show Me ratings story,” Wells Fargo media analyst Steven Cahall said in a research note the week latest, adding, “The departure of Tucker Carlson caused Fox News’ share of cable news to slip significantly. It’s unclear whether his audience defected in a cyclical or structural way.

The new primetime lineup aims to keep people coming back. Watters and Gutfeld’s moves give more prime time room to a younger cast of Fox News hosts. But Hannity remains where he has been for the most part since being paired with liberal commentator Alan Colmes in 1996. There was speculation that the network could take Hannity out of prime time as part of its revamp. , potentially later in the evening. After all, Laura Ingraham, a prime-time watcher, takes an early-night job (where, oddly enough, she’ll be pitted against one of MSNBC’s most outspoken opinion leaders, Joy Reid).

Over the years, Hannity has created controversy both within Fox News and outside, but there’s good reason the company is keeping him somewhere familiar. He maintains close ties with longtime Fox News viewers, those who haven’t cut the cord and who can’t be ignored by cable and satellite distributors. Fox Corp. is in the midst of a round of distribution negotiations for Fox News, Fox Business Network, Fox Sports and affiliates of Fox Broadcasting with about a third of its distribution partners. Hannity’s prominent screen presence is likely to help.

Hannity says he, like many other top hosts and presenters, is at the mercy of the company that airs his show. “I’ve seen it my whole career. People come and go, and friends of mine have lost their jobs, and that’s a part of the business that I never liked,” he says. I can want it all I want, but I don’t own the radio show I’m on and I don’t own Fox.”

He hopes viewership levels will return. “I think change is hard for any audience,” he says. “I’m starting to sense and feel that interest in the presidential election is growing, and with that, I think, will come a predictable increase in ratings.”

The live audience format is meant to bring people together. Hannity says the idea to test the concept came while he was doing town hall interviews with various reporters as the coronavirus pandemic waned. “When you’re isolated from people for two years, I mean, it’s refreshing to be around people who don’t wear masks,” he says. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I hit the road again in 2022.” Hannity had been hidden from the others for a while. He often produced his radio and television broadcasts from distant studios.

Now he has to develop some interesting skills. Hannity warms up the live crowd himself, doing a mix of jokes and celebrity impressions. In a recent phone conversation, he offered impersonations of former President Bill Clinton; conservative commentators Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh; and even actor Marlon Brando. “It may sound silly in an interview, but it works when I’m in front of the crowd,” Hannity says. “They laugh.” He answers questions during commercial breaks. He bought Nerf footballs with his show’s logo which he distributes to the public and guests. And he made a habit of staying after the show for half an hour to talk to those who came to see him.

“It’s another side of Sean that the viewer at home doesn’t always see,” says Tiffany Fazio, executive producer of “Hannity,” adding, “He answers so many questions from the audience. People would be surprised. »

Hannity is also doing more town hall and one-on-one interviews with reporters from different walks of life. Yes, many of them are politicians – a pre-recorded session with President Trump is scheduled for this week. But he also interviewed California Governor Gavin Newsom, a popular Democrat. There’s also interest in cultivating visits from a wider pool, says Fazio, who points to Hannity’s encounters with actor Sean Penn and UFC star Connor McGregor. Fox News doesn’t shy away from politics, which powers much of its programming, but executives have told advertisers they try to spotlight other topics, including sports and entertainment. “We already have a lot of big things locked in” for the near future, says Hannity.

Although he’s outlived many of his contemporaries at Fox News, Hannity says he still loves the job and isn’t considering leaving at the moment: “I’m not going anywhere as long as they keep giving me headquarters.”

Having a live audience can sometimes be problematic. Hannity says the protesters once went on a program and were kept off camera. CNN discovered that a live audience at City Hall booed moderator Kaitlan Collins as she attempted to moderate a program with Trump, undermining her efforts and those of the Warner Bros.-backed outlet. Discovery.

“Sometimes the audience is loud. They’re rowdy, really into it and they whistle and boo and clap,” notes Hannity. Yet things can only go so far. Visitors to the set are warned before the show goes live on how to act. “I have to be very, very aware that the vast majority of my audience is at home,” says Hannity. Fox News executives will also be focusing on this crowd in the coming days.

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