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Fox News is still trying—and failing—to find a solution to its 7 p.m. problem

CNN logo CNN 2/26/2021 By Brian Stelter, CNN Business
Katie Pavlich wearing a purple shirt and smiling at the camera: NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: Fox cohost of "The Five" Katie Pavlich welcomes Columbus Zoo for Animals Are Great Segment at Fox News Channel Studios on September 12, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images) © John Lamparski/Getty Images NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: Fox cohost of "The Five" Katie Pavlich welcomes Columbus Zoo for Animals Are Great Segment at Fox News Channel Studios on September 12, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

To understand the state of cable news at the beginning of the Biden era, check out the 7 p.m. Eastern hour on weekdays.

This month last year Fox News was far and away No. 1 in total viewers and the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic at 7 p.m. This February, Fox is a distant No. 3 behind CNN and MSNBC.

There are numerous reasons: Donald Trump's loss, the GOP's disarray, savvy programming choices by rival channels and the rise of Newsmax, among others. The result is that Fox is holding on-air tryouts for a new host. And none of the candidates are really clicking.

Guest hosts are trying out

As a network, Fox normally oozes confidence. Hosts and executives normally hold up Fox's ratings victories as a sword and shield. But the end of the Trump era has been disorienting for the Murdoch family's media empire. Fox has been suffering ratings losses throughout the day. The network has been in third place at 7 p.m. for the past three months, both before and after the onetime anchor in the slot, Martha MacCallum, was booted to the 3 p.m. hour.

Fox moved MacCallum's conservative newscast to make way for another hour of pro-Trump opinion. The network calls it "Fox News Primetime" now, and guest hosts have been taking turns at 7 p.m. for the past six weeks. Katie Pavlich is leading the hour this week. Lawrence Jones is up next. Then Trey Gowdy, who hosted for a week at the beginning of this month, will return in March, making him the first candidate to get a second try-out.

Various media news outlets have tried to size up the ratings for the guest hosts, but the bottom line is this: None of the 7 p.m. hosts have consistently improved on Fox's 6 p.m. lead-in. None of them have enhanced Fox's position in the key time slot.

Every day is different, to be sure, and Fox has been winning back some of the viewers who fled the channel after Election Day. But a cable news realignment is still underway.

"The hammock"

The guest hosts are paying close attention to the performance of the 7 p.m. hour. But the challenge is not theirs alone -- arguably the lead-in is a bigger issue. TV is all about lead-ins.

Fox attracts a huge audience at 5 p.m. Eastern with its right-wing talk show "The Five." Then there's a downhill slide at 6 p.m. when "Special Report with Bret Baier" begins. A sizable part of the Fox base stays away until 8 p.m. when "Tucker Carlson Tonight" comes on.

Wednesday's hourly ratings illustrate this very well: Fox averaged 1.2 million total viewers at 4 p.m., then "The Five" blew the roof off with 2.9 million viewers, Baier declined to 1.9 million, the amorphous 7 p.m. hour dropped to 1.6 million, and Carlson attracted 3.0 million. Some TV executives have a name for those in-between hours: The "hammock." It's not a compliment.

The "hammock" demonstrates that a big chunk of the Fox base tunes in for talk and tunes out for news. That's why I view the 7 p.m. hour as a symbol of the broader issues plaguing Fox and the GOP. Many right-wing media consumers don't want news per se, they want the culture war segments about "cancel culture" and "big tech censorship" that have come to define Fox's brand.

Fox "has to continue producing new stars"

"The bench" is another term of art in the TV industry. News networks are constantly thinking about developing new correspondents, anchors and commentators who will earn the trust of the audience. Fox's choices about fill-in hosts reflect the strength or weakness of its bench.

OutKick's Bobby Burack, who broke the news about Gowdy getting a second try-out, wrote that "as influential as Fox News' brand is, individual star power moves the needle."

Burack said Fox "has to continue producing new stars and should be in the process of trying to find the next big name to go along with Carlson right now."

Darcy's take

Oliver Darcy writes: "Did Fox assume its 7 p.m. problem would be easily solved by swapping MacCallum for a full-blown opinion show? If so, it clearly wasn't enough. Greg Kelly's show on Newsmax is slicing into Fox's ratings at 7. Overall, I think this shows that Tucker Carlson is the engine driving Fox's prime time lineup. Purely from a ratings POV, two hours of Tucker would be a boon for the Murdochs."

A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

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