Blue-chip advertisers would never return to the show in force. But thanks in part to the large audiences he could provide for those advertisers who remained, and the premium prices Fox could charge them, Mr. Carlson’s ad revenue began to recover. Every year since 2018, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has brought more annual ad revenue to Fox than any other show, according to estimates by iSpot. Last May, after promoting the white supremacist “replacement” theory, Mr. Carlson had half as many advertisers as in December 2018 but brought in almost twice as much money.
As “Tucker Carlson Tonight” became more toxic to advertisers, it also began featuring fewer guests who disagreed with the host, and more guests who simply echoed or amplified Mr. Carlson’s own message. It wasn’t just that liberals didn’t want to debate him, though some now refused to appear on the show, as Mr. Carlson complained during a Fox appearance last summer; Fox was learning that its audience didn’t necessarily like hearing from the other side. “From my discussions with Fox News bookers, my takeaway is that they’ve made the judgment that they just don’t do debate segments anymore,” said Richard Goodstein, a Democratic lobbyist and campaign adviser who appeared regularly on Mr. Carlson’s show until the summer of 2020. Across much of the Fox lineup, former employees said, producers were relying more and more on panels of pro-Trump conservatives competing to see who could denounce Democrats more fervently — a ratings gambit one former Fox employee called “rage inflation.” (One exception, perhaps, is “The Five,” a panel show featuring four conservative co-hosts and one rotating co-host from the left, which has beaten Mr. Carlson in total viewers in some recent months.)
And as advertisers fled, Mr. Carlson’s opening monologue grew. Where once he spoke for only a few minutes, sometimes in a neutral just-asking-questions mode, he now often opened the show with a lengthy stemwinder, addressing his audience as “you” and the objects of his fury as a shadowy “they.” Ratings data showed that the monologues were a hit with viewers, according to one former and one current Fox employee, and by 2020, Mr. Carlson regularly spoke directly to the camera for more than quarter of the hourlong show. Instead of less Tucker, the audience got more.
His critics at Fox found themselves further marginalized: After an on-air feud with Mr. Carlson over the legality of Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials, Shepard Smith was reportedly warned against criticizing his fellow host, and he departed Fox in October 2019. Mr. Carlson’s ratings grew, buoyed by the increasingly heated and apocalyptic presidential campaign. One night in June 2020, after yet another commercial-to-commercial attack on Black Lives Matter protesters, Mr. Carlson addressed the matter directly. Ratings were more than just ammunition in the cable-news wars, Mr. Carlson explained. They were proof that his viewers were not alone, proof that they were right. “Last night, we did something we don’t do very often: We spent the entire first block of the show on a single topic,” he said. More people had watched the previous night’s show, he observed, than any other hour of prime-time television that evening — more than the old evening news broadcasts, more than any sitcoms or sports events. “Millions and millions of Americans agree with you,” he said. “You are not crazy. Your views are not evil.”
That month, another Fox employee complained to human resources that Mr. Carlson’s on-air statements contradicted Mr. Murdoch’s public pledge to “support our Black colleagues” in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. In response, an executive cited the company’s need to allow “diverse voices and perspectives,” according to a person familiar with the exchange. At the end of the month, when the Nielsen figures trickled in, Fox sent out a triumphant news release: Mr. Carlson had posted the highest quarterly ratings of any cable news show in history — breaking Mr. Hannity’s old record and helping make Fox the most-watched channel on all of basic cable.
An Upside-Down Nation
In the end, it was Fox’s own political unit, a bastion of traditional news-gathering, that brought the network’s increasingly wobbly balancing act to an end. Just before midnight on Election Day, hours ahead of other networks and news consortiums, Fox announced that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had won the swing state of Arizona. Mr. Trump instantly declared the result a “fraud,” but the following Saturday, as late votes trickled in, Mr. Biden won Pennsylvania, ending the presidential race.
Mr. Trump’s defeat was the ultimate glitch in Fox’s Trump narrative, one that couldn’t be so easily spun or papered over by its prime-time hosts. Despondent Trump supporters began to look elsewhere for news, encouraged by anti-Fox tweets from Mr. Trump himself. In early December, the upstart conservative network Newsmax, which had positioned itself as even more devotedly pro-Trump, scored its first ratings win over Fox. It was a minor crack in Fox’s cable dominance — fewer than 30,000 viewers in one audience segment on a single December night in the 7 p.m. hour — but it sent shudders through the Fox executive suites. The network might shrug off the complaints of a few advertisers; losing audience to a right-leaning rival was another thing. That month, according to one former Fox executive, Rupert Murdoch delivered a message to the network’s chief executive, Ms. Scott: Clean house. (A Fox spokeswoman disputed this description.)