The Post-Tucker Sweepstakes

Photo: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Politicon
Dylan Byers
April 28, 2023

Every year, in the lengthy preamble of their annual earnings report, Fox Corp. lists a litany of “risk factors” that could adversely affect Rupert Murdoch’s remaining $18 billion empire. This portion of the S.E.C. filing, which runs twelve-and-a-half pages, includes all the usual external and internal vulnerabilities that burden most legacy media moguls, including but not limited to: “changes in consumer behavior” brought on by “evolving technologies and distribution platforms,” declines in ad spending, the potential loss of live sports rights, changes in macroeconomic conditions, and the customary legal, regulatory and cybersecurity concerns. In light of recent events at Fox News, the company’s primary economic engine, two other vulnerabilities stand out: “damage to our brands… or our reputation,” and “the loss of key personnel, including talent.”

At 11:28 a.m. on Monday, I tweeted the news, confirmed in a press release that went wide mere moments later, that Fox News was parting ways with Tucker Carlson. Tucker, of course, continually tested the Murdochs’ ability to balance the two aforementioned vulnerabilities: On the one hand, his 21st Century Father Coughlin routine—the populist conspiracy theorism, the bigoted fearmongering, etcetera—exposed the broader Fox Corp. business to negative consumer sentiment, advertiser flight and, ultimately, potential legal risks, the details of which are still coming into view. On the other hand, Carlson was a ratings juggernaut who drew around 3.2 million viewers a night and served as a bulwark against MAGA America’s post-2020 drift to the relative nether regions of OANN and Newsmax, or off television and further afield.

The Murdochs, always mindful of maximizing political influence and shareholder value, delicately walked Tucker’s razor-fine line for as long as they could, right up until the Dominion lawsuit exposed Tucker’s most toxic and vulgar off-air behavior—to the Murdochs, if not to the public—and unearthed new legal liabilities and personal humiliations that made his employment at Fox untenable. So Rupert and his son Lachlan took action, and then took a hit. Two minutes after the news broke, Fox stock tumbled, dropping by as much as 5.4 percent and momentarily erasing more than $500 million in value. (To paraphrase Succession, “There’s Tucker…”) With Brian Kilmeade in Tucker’s old chair, Fox’s ratings at 8 p.m. fell precipitously the following night to 1.7 million and then further still on Wednesday to 1.3 million—numbers so low that, for the first time, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes beat Fox News in both total viewers and the 25-to-54 year-old demo. (There’s Tucker again...)

The question for the Murdochs now, of course, is how bad and lasting the hit will really be. By close of market Friday, Fox’s stock had effectively corrected. Meanwhile, if history is any guide, it’s the network that makes the talent, and not the other way around. The departures of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly all inspired alarmist speculation that Fox News was facing an existential crisis, and at every turn the network not only proved durable, but grew stronger—a testament to the power of the brand among conservatives, the moat it has built in right-wing media, and its ability to cultivate and produce homegrown talent. 

It can be hard to remember, but the Tucker who joined Fox News as a contributor in 2009 was still more closely associated then with the mildly palatable bow-tie Georgetown conservative who could share a set with Paul Begala (as he did on CNN) or Rachel Maddow (as he did on MSNBC). Whether the bigoted conspiratorial populism was always there, or grew inside over time, is up to the biographers and psychoanalysts. Nevertheless, Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson wasn’t born like this, and will be replaced.

The Next Tucker

This time around, I’m reliably told, the most likely heir to Tucker’s primetime throne is either Jesse Watters, whose ascent from pedestrian accoster to The Five co-host to pre-primetime star makes his eventual landing at 8 p.m. feel almost preordained; or Will Cain, the former ESPN contributor who became a Fox & Friends Weekend co-host in 2020. (Not for nothing, Tucker himself was a Fox & Friends Weekend co-host for nearly four years before his promotion to primetime.) Anyone who doubts Fox’s ability to turn either one of these men into a right-wing media star overlooks both Fox’s production acumen and, as importantly, the degree to which fame and influence on Fox News can act as a mind- and heart-altering drug. 

In any event, the promotion will certainly not go to Kilmeade, who has presided over this week’s ratings plunge, nor is it likely to go to Lawrence Jones, a 30-year-old rising star who will nevertheless get a momentary taste of the spotlight when he fills out the chair next week.

At the same time, the American political and media landscape has shifted remarkably since Tucker assumed the mantle, thanks in no small part to Trump. The Murdochs’ own anxieties about that were on full display in the Dominion pre-trial depositions, when Lachlan claimed to have lost sleep over viewer flight to more voter-fraud-friendly outlets, like OANN and Newsmax, after the 2020 election. And indeed, the most telling aspect of this week’s ratings realignment was where those viewers went. Newsmax saw ratings for the 8 p.m. hour jump more than 360 percent on Monday night, and further still on Tuesday. 

Again, this may all be temporary. But in this context, Tucker’s own post-Fox playbook will be the X-factor. For all their power and fame, neither Beck, O’Reilly nor Megyn became as potent a political force as Tucker, free-agenting at a time that the entire Republican party was fracturing over differing interpretations of, say, the legitimacy of the U.S. presidential election or war in Eastern Europe. A Tucker show on Newsmax, while perhaps unlikely to happen, would be a force Fox would have to reckon with. 

More likely, however, is an outcome in which Carlson begins a homegrown media business developed around his personal brand, either disseminated through disintermediated third-party platforms, like satellite radio and YouTube, or through his own owned-and-operated platform. Once upon a time, before it was chic, he was the founder of The Daily Caller. Now, perhaps, he has a chance to truly make spectacular wealth as a messianic entrepreneur.

The Fight for Fourth Place

Still, it’s arguable that the biggest vulnerabilities exposed this week were not at Fox, but CNN. For a year now, David Zaslav and Chris Licht have been trying to reestablish the network’s credibility with conservatives, exorcizing the anti-Trump fervor of the Zucker era; wooing Republican lawmakers back on air, from Mitch McConnell to Matt Gaetz; and touting their commitment to fair and open-minded journalism. 

The most immediate ambition, it seems, is to bring Republican viewers back into the fold with nuanced programming that better represents the broad swath of the American electorate. But that’s not really how cable consumer behavior usually works. Outside of lobbyist offices and newsrooms, most of the people who still regularly watch cable news are hyper-partisan Baby Boomers who overwhelmingly prefer Fox News and, to a lesser extent, MSNBC. 

As I noted earlier this week, Licht’s pivot to the middle has been inartfully administered, to say the least, with the result being that CNN remains in a solid third place behind MSNBC in both total viewers (as has long been the case) and the demo (which is new). But Tucker’s exit and Newsmax’s surge have introduced an entirely new anxiety: On Wednesday, Newsmax’s 8 p.m. hour was just 81,000 viewers shy of overtaking Anderson Cooper 360. On Thursday, it narrowed the delta to 71,000 viewers, bringing CNN perilously close to fourth place.

Once again, this is very much a moment in time, more likely to correct than it is to continue. Nevertheless, the rapidly shifting viewership behavior this week, in light of a single talent departure, highlights how vulnerable these networks are in this politically fractured moment—and how vulnerable they are, as Fox’s lawyers noted, to “the loss of key personnel, including talent.” In the grand scheme of things, the biggest risk factors on the Murdochs’ plate, and Zaslav’s, have to do with those larger, existential market forces. But the caveats about brand reputation and key personnel are in the S.E.C. filing for a reason. Sure, every on-air talent may ultimately be replaceable. But no network is invincible.