In a move that shook the industry, Fox News announced that their top night show host, Tucker Carlson, would be parting ways with the network. While the full details of Tucker’s departure are yet to be known, many are speculating that the decision was made in part due to the recent defamation lawsuit brought on by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox, during which private messages from Tucker were revealed to have shown his serious critiquing of Fox News leadership. Regardless of how Tucker’s departure occurred, many believe his future to still be potentially brighter than Fox News. Indeed, other big names in the industry have left their posts in the past and started successful programs, such as Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly.
By Philip Bump; April 24, 2023
The announcement was staggering: Fox News host Tucker Carlson was leaving the channel. And not just leaving it but doing so retroactively, with his last show airing Friday, three days before Monday’s announcement. There will be no further episodes of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” for Fox News viewers.
The last thing his Fox News fans saw, then, was Friday’s interview with a pizza-delivery guy who helped stop a thief. And the last thing they heard him say, besides Fox News promos, was: “The entire episode of ‘Let Them Eat Bugs’ — not quite as good as pizza — streaming now on Fox Nation.” Followed by: “We’ll be back on Monday.”
He would not be.
As of this writing, the news is fresh — so fresh that we don’t know precisely what triggered Carlson’s exodus or the extent to which it was mutually desired. We certainly don’t yet know what comes next, necessarily, either for Carlson or for the network. But it’s worth exploring what’s happened to past hosts who left the network and understanding why Carlson doesn’t easily fit into any such mold.
What’s next for Tucker Carlson?
To some extent, what follows for Carlson depends on what triggered his ouster.
An early Washington Post report indicates that the separation was downstream from comments he’d made about the Fox executive team. You’ll recall, of course, that Fox last week settled a massive defamation lawsuit brought by a manufacturer of electronic voting machines. As part of that suit, the company obtained and released numerous messages from Fox News staff and on-air personalities, including Carlson. The suggestion here is that, despite Carlson’s robust viewership, his comments about the company’s leadership made his position untenable.
Perhaps. It is also possible that some other trigger is at play. Carlson has been the target of numerous boycotts, eating away at his sponsors, and has been a focus of other legal action. (For example: Ray Epps, the man Carlson has repeatedly and baselessly insisted stoked violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, has demanded a retraction of those claims.) It’s possible, too, that Carlson engaged in some more mundane behavior that might result in termination. People get fired for lots of reasons that are not related to their professed political extremism.
So let’s consider the post-Fox careers of a few other exiles from the channel as potential guides for what Carlson might do next.
There’s Bill O’Reilly, for example. He left Fox in April 2017 after being accused of sexual harassment. Thanks in part to the reason for his departure, O’Reilly then wandered the media wilderness. After Donald Trump left office, he joined O’Reilly in a speaking tour for which the pair sold tickets (though fewer than they’d hoped). O’Reilly now has a podcast and radio show — a far cry from his once influential perch.
A few months before O’Reilly left, anchor Megyn Kelly announced that she was leaving the network for a new position with NBC News. It seemed like an upgrade, leaving Fox (and her rocky relationship with Trump) for a “Today” show-branded gig on broadcast.
It didn’t work out. Kelly lasted a bit over a year at NBC. She, too, now has a podcast and radio show.
Eric Bolling also left the channel in 2017 after being suspended for allegedly sending inappropriate pictures to colleagues. He eventually landed at Fox News competitor Newsmax.
Then there’s perhaps the most obvious parallel to Carlson: Glenn Beck.
Beck appeared on Carlson’s show the evening after Trump was indicted earlier this month. The similarities are striking: Each host had a show in prime time that he used to push the envelope on what was acceptable in cable news. Each built massive audiences as a result, earning status as the de facto voice of the American right wing.
Beck left Fox relatively soon after achieving that status. He left to build his own media conglomerate, including a television channel. The channel and his media universe have survived, but Beck’s clout in the media and the nation’s political conversation is nowhere near what it once was. That he was, at first, a vocal opponent of Trump didn’t help.
Carlson could certainly build his own media enterprise if he wanted to. It’s quite unlikely that any other cable news network would pick him up, given his track record of controversy. (He has already had shows on both CNN and MSNBC that got canceled.) The success of such a venture would depend to some extent on how well he retains the trust of his audience after leaving Fox and on the cause of his departure. Such an effort, though, would almost certainly mean less influence than what he enjoyed on cable news until Friday night.
There is an exception, of course. One other television personality and Fox News contributor left the media world to gain enormous political influence, despite his controversial views. His name was Donald Trump.
What’s next for Fox News?
The immediate question is who fills Carlson’s empty slot. The hour is part of the network’s “opinion” programming, meaning that the right-wing rhetoric isn’t couched in the trappings of news coverage.
Should the network seek to retain someone as willing to throw large bombs into the conversation, the natural inheritor would seem to be Jesse Watters, who now hosts the 7 p.m. slot. Watters started as O’Reilly’s sidekick, and he made clear in January 2022 what he sees as his duties as a Fox News employee: “I work at Fox! I want to see disarray on the left! It’s good for America! It’s good for our ratings!”
But that doesn’t answer the real question, which is what effect Carlson’s departure will have. Each of the aforementioned departures did minimal damage. O’Reilly was replaced by Carlson, who thrived. Beck was replaced by “The Five,” for which Watters is a co-host.
Those changes occurred at a different moment for Fox, however. The Trump era has reshaped the relationship between Fox News and the political right, with the former president building enormous loyalty with Fox News viewers. As journalists Susan Glasser and Peter Baker reported last year, Fox News founder Roger Ailes understood the threat Trump posed: He was “someone who connected with the Fox audience even more than Fox did.”
While other conservative outlets had been positioning themselves to the right of Fox with some success (see: Breitbart News in 2016), Trump’s feud with the channel after the 2020 election forced many on the right to choose between the two. Fissures emerged, which Fox has been fairly good at soldering back together. But they did so in part with Carlson’s help: His was an authentic voice for the Trump base. While endlessly Trump loyal, Sean Hannity can only parrot Trump’s rhetoric, and he generally does so in service to the Trump-led MAGA establishment. Carlson tapped into the same fury that Trump accesses.
This, then, is a moment of opportunity for Fox News’s competitors and critics. You saw such efforts emerge quickly after the Carlson announcement went public. Stephen K. Bannon, former Trump adviser and Breitbart head, quickly told viewers of his podcast-slash-show that they should no longer watch the network. Megyn Kelly attacked the channel’s leadership. Charlie Kirk encouraged Carlson to set up shop on the right-wing streaming service Rumble.
Trump’s son Eric piled on, too.
(His wife, Lara Trump, left the network after Donald Trump declared his 2024 candidacy.)
Carlson and Fox News were a powerful combination. Splitting them apart makes both weaker, perhaps dramatically so. But each has also rebounded successfully from previous crises. It is certainly far too early to assume they are now past the peak of their power.