NEW YORK – Before ousting Tucker Carlson, Fox News had twice fired wildly popular hosts – and both times the network recovered better than the stars it cut loose.
Fox's dismissals of Glenn Beck in 2011 and Bill O'Reilly in 2017 offer lessons in what the post-Carlson fallout might be. Carlson was let go on Monday, less than a week after Fox agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787 million for airing bogus claims of voter fraud following the 2020 election.
Fox's two most popular programs last year — Carlson's being one of them — were the replacements for Beck and O'Reilly.
“It seems like the parts are interchangeable,” said SiriusXM and CNN personality Michael Smerconish. “They've built a machine over there that seems to function even when the pistons are replaced.”
Still, Carlson's ability to connect with supporters of former President Donald Trump could benefit him wherever he lands.
Beck was a sensation at Fox during the first term of former President Barack Obama. He spun intricate conspiracy theories before it was fashionable and sparked an advertising boycott after saying Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” Viewers flocked to his marginal time slot, 5 p.m. Eastern, in numbers that rivaled prime time.
There were signs that Beck was fading when then-Fox News chief Roger Ailes cut him loose in April 2011. Ailes famously told The Associated Press at the time: “Half of the headlines say he's been canceled. The other half say he quit. We're pretty happy with both of them.”
Beck was hailed as an elder statesman when Carlson brought him on as a guest last month on the night Trump was indicted, where he predicted the U.S. would be at war with Russia, China and Iraq by 2025.
Ailes replaced Beck with a panel show, “The Five,” with four conservative pundits and one liberal kicking around the stories of the day. In 2022, the show averaged 3.4 million nightly viewers — more than Beck at his peak — and was the top-rated cable news show of the year, the Nielsen company said.
O'Reilly's “no spin zone” was essentially the face of Fox News for several years before he was fired in April 2017 following an investigation into harassment allegations.
He was replaced by Carlson, a cable news journeyman whose angry, grievance-based program made him the most influential voice in cable news. His ideas were echoed by many Republican politicians and there was talk of him being a future candidate, too.
O'Reilly now hosts a podcast and Beck has the sixth-most popular radio talk show in the country, but neither has the influence they had when they were on Fox, said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine.
At Fox, the platform is king, Harrison said, not the on-air personalities.
While Fox has shed big-name hosts with little damage in the past, the ouster of Carlson comes at a precarious moment for the network, said Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University professor and author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.”
Carlson was the person there who best excelled at exciting the base of the Republican Party, she said. Smerconish noticed the number of callers to his own talk show who said they would miss Carlson's ability to challenge groupthink.
“If Carlson now begins attacking Fox as ‘corporate media’ that despises its Trump-supporting viewers, he could cause the network to begin bleeding viewers” as it briefly did after the 2020 election, Hemmer said. Carlson hasn't talked about his firing, and didn't return a query from the AP on Tuesday.
Carlson heavily embraced some conspiracy theories, particularly surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. His opposition to U.S. involvement in the Ukraine War received such notice that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov brought up Carlson's firing at the United Nations on Tuesday.
“It's curious news,” Lavrov said. “What is this related to? One can only guess, but clearly, the wealth of views in the American information space has suffered as a result.”
The day he was fired, Carlson was nearly invisible on the Fox News prime-time lineup that he used to dominate.
“We’re not talking about Tucker,” former colleague Sean Hannity said in one of the two very brief mentions of Carlson’s name on Fox News on Monday night. In contrast, his ouster was the lead story on ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts.
Fox hasn't discussed its reasons for cutting ties with Carlson. But as the Dominion case illustrated, the spread of conspiracy theories has made Fox legally vulnerable. A new host who reflects the Fox audience's conservative philosophy but is less controversial could also be more popular with advertisers and thus more lucrative.
“People are creatures of habit,” conservative talk show host Erick Erickson said. “Fox will offer another host who speaks into the audience's concerns. There'll be a dip, just like after O'Reilly, but I expect the host will be competent enough to earn the audience's trust quickly.”
Carlson was named to replace O'Reilly on the day O'Reilly was fired. It may take some time for Carlson's replacement to be known: Fox took a year, using guest hosts, before naming Jesse Watters as its 7 p.m. host last year. Watters was an immediate hit, and Fox learned that the audience likes to be part of the selection process.
It makes Watters an obvious candidate to move from 7 to 8 p.m., as Carlson did in replacing O'Reilly.
In addition to Beck and O'Reilly, other people who have left Fox in recent years — Megyn Kelly, Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace — haven't reached the same heights elsewhere in terms of audience interest.
Will Carlson, who turns 54 next month, have another act in media?
“Every one of the journalists who left re-emerged in diminished positions,” Smerconish said. “I expect that will be the same with him. I think he will have a better shot than the others, but I don't think he will be at the level he was on Friday night.”