Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
During the Trump administration, Sean Hannity was on top of the world. With the ouster of his longtime Fox News colleague and nemesis Bill O’Reilly in April 2017 over sexual misconduct allegations, Hannity quickly rose from second fiddle to the most-watched host in cable news. And he stayed there for years.
Not only was the veteran Fox News host pulling in nearly four million viewers every night while cheerleading for Donald Trump, but he was also widely considered the then-president’s shadow chief of staff. When Trump wasn’t calling into his show for an “exclusive” interview, Hannity was ringing the president late at night and serving as an informal adviser.
But toward the end of Trump’s term, Tucker Carlson—who essentially replaced O’Reilly in primetime—supplanted Hannity as the top dog at Fox News. Conservative cable viewers seemed far more interested in Carlson’s brand of taking Trumpism’s far-right nationalism, fervent anti-immigrant rhetoric, and COVID trutherism and running with it over Hannity’s increasingly stale Trump boosterism (and insatiable Hillary Clinton obsession).
And the longer Hannity—now the longest-running cable news host in history—has traversed a post-Trump world, the further he’s tumbled down the ratings mountaintop.
“We are the envy of every other network in having to compete with ourselves after beating everything else in cable, but no other host in the industry has the longevity and staying power of Sean Hannity,” wrote a network spokesperson. “FOX News Media is beyond proud that his number one show at 9PM is an integral part of our primetime lineup and a pivotal part of our success for 26 years.”
Having already risen to a solid third place in Fox News viewership by the 2020 election, the late-afternoon panel show The Five—featuring popular Fox News veterans Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters—eventually passed Hannity for second place in August 2021, and hasn’t looked back since. In fact, the culture war-driven gabfest has even overtaken Tucker Carlson Tonight as the most-watched show in all of cable news. (Carlson’s show, however, regularly draws more viewers in the coveted 25-54 advertising demographic.)
In the aftermath of Fox News’ brief ratings slump following Trump’s election loss, the network shook up its weekday lineup and leaned harder into overt right-wing commentary. This resulted in booting 7 p.m. “straight news” anchor Martha MacCallum to mid-afternoon and replacing her hour with a nightly opinion talk show.
Eventually, after a year of filling the time slot with a rotating series of hosts, the network rewarded Watters with the hour this past January. Known for his ambush interviews and penchant for courting controversy, the one-time O’Reilly lackey’s star has quickly risen at Fox. Like Gutfeld, who also recently launched a popular weeknight talk show, Watters hosted a highly rated weekend program for several years.
Jesse Watters Primetime was an immediate hit with the right-wing cable giant’s audience, instantly dominating its time slot and quickly becoming one of the top five shows on cable.
By the spring, the early evening program passed Hannity’s primetime offering in total audience, drawing an average of 2.92 million viewers to Hannity’s 2.89 million in April, though Hannity did maintain a slim lead over Watters in the key demographic.
Hannity’s show was able to claw its way to a third-place finish for the second quarter of the year, pulling in an average of 2.73 million total viewers to Watters’ 2.69 million, while beating Jesse Watters Primetime in the advertising demographic by nearly 50,000 viewers. But June and July, separately, told a different story. Watters once again edged out Hannity in total viewership in June while closing the gap in the 25-54 demographic. The following month, Watters expanded his lead in overall audience by more than 100,000 viewers and came within 13,000 of Hannity in the key advertising demographic.
Of course, while Hannity’s ratings dominance at Fox has long ended, he continues to routinely top his competitors at both CNN and MSNBC (especially now that Rachel Maddow is only broadcasting once a week). Additionally, Hannity’s show has gained overall viewership compared to this time last year, up seven percent in total audience.
The sustained ascendancy of Carlson, Gutfeld, and Watters—more “own the libs” culture warriors than card-carrying Trumpists—while Hannity, a member of Trump’s inner circle, continues to sink cannot be simply chalked up to a growing perception that the network is distancing itself from Trump’s cult of personality.
Even while Murdoch-owned editorial boards have assailed Trump over bombshell Jan. 6 revelations, and Fox News hasn’t interviewed the ex-president in months, Trump’s presence still overshadows everyone else’s at Fox. Furthermore, even though they are less directly involved in Trumpworld, Carlson, Gutfeld and Watters continue to run interference on the ex-president’s behalf, often singing his praises, or yukking it up with him at his Saudi-backed golf tournament.
Instead, the most likely explanation comes from Hannity’s inability to evolve with the changing right-wing media landscape—one that has long moved into darker ideological terrain after decades of loyally defending and touting the Republican Party above all else.
“The fundamental thing about Hannity is that he’s not an ideas guy. He’s a cheerleader,” explained Matthew Sheffield, a former right-wing media figure turned critic. Prior to launching Flux, an independent media outlet, Sheffield was a co-founder of NewsBusters, a right-wing watchdog regularly featured on Hannity’s show and across Fox programming. In recent years, Sheffield has become a vocal critic of conservative media, spending much of his energy now decrying how “damaging” it has been to the American public.
“[Hannity] is not a creative person. He just wants to have the same guests on all the time talking about the same things,” he continued. “And for the more angry, reactionary, Christian types, that’s just not enough for them anymore. They want more anger, more ambitiousness. And they certainly don’t want to hear what Lindsey Graham has to say.”
This analysis of Hannity’s fall from the top was echoed by Andrew Lawrence, deputy director of rapid response at liberal watchdog Media Matters for America.
“I think that the establishment of the Republican Party, their influence is kind of waning a little bit,” Lawrence said. “I think that they're sort of following the lead of the ‘blood and soil’ base, which is where Tucker draws his influence from. And I think Fox News has kind of moved to that to try to appeal to that ‘blood and soil’ base more so than getting Republicans elected.”
Sheffield, meanwhile, noted that hosts like Carlson, Gutfeld, and Watters seem to understand better than Hannity that Fox’s hardcore viewership generally believes itself to be constantly besieged and aggrieved—that they are outnumbered, loathed, and excluded from an elite, largely liberal popular culture.
“What Watters gives to them is that he tries to turn it on its head and make fun of the left. That’s most of what he’s doing,” Sheffield explained. “It hits a better emotional tone for them to be making snide remarks about Democrats rather than just trotting [establishment Republican lawmakers] out again.”
Lawrence similarly suggested that Watters et al better fit the network’s current business model largely revolving around “ginning up outrage cycles” and stoking culture-war controversy. Hannity, on the other hand, only seems to draw headlines for his attachment to Trump’s time in office. “His controversies come [when] it’s revealed during a congressional hearing that his texts to Trump said x, y, or z,” Lawrence remarked.
Another possible explanation for Hannity’s decline among Fox’s viewership, Sheffield said, is in his most frequent guests. While Sen. Graham, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Fox News punching bag Geraldo Rivera were once staples of the network’s overall programming, such guests are now viewed with a general suspicion from the ideological right.
“They hate these people. And if you look at those other shows, they’re not bringing these people on,” Sheffield asserted. “He’s like a loyal dog who will just keep coming back to the house, because it’s the only thing he knows.”
Lawrence was far more concise in his overall assessment of Hannity’s decline: “His show is just bad television at this point.”