Florida Governor Ron DeSantis squaring off against California Governor Gavin Newsom in a debate moderated by Sean Hannity? Sounds like an opportunity for another round of cable-news professional wrestling.
The host hopes to keep the figure-four leg locks and piledrivers to a minimum.
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“It’s not going to be PBS. I don’t want it to be PBS. PBS bores me,” Hannity says during a recent conversation in his office at Fox News Channel’s New York headquarters. Still, he adds, “if they want to have a food fight, you know what? Been there, done that. No thanks. It’s a format that I think is stale and doesn’t work. It’s predictable. For me, I’m much more interested in ‘Why do you believe that? ‘Explain this to me.’ ‘How do you not see this part of it?’ Trying to elicit answers, smart answers from people.”
For many producers of cable-news content, which has in recent years increasingly hinged on talking heads in conflict, such talk might be considered anathema. And Hannity, who has risen to success over nearly three decades of calling out Democrats like Hillary Clinton and President Joe Biden with claims of being afraid to face the media or being involved in corrupt schemes, has been one of the best-known practitioners of the hammer-and-tong oratorical style that has worked so well in the medium. He continues, for example, to harp on the legal troubles that have ensnared President Biden’s son, Hunter.
But his goals for the looming November 30th debate, slated to be televised live from Alpharetta, Ga., without an audience, seem more, well, journalistic — something to which news-side anchor Bret Baier or “Fox News Sunday” anchor Shannon Bream might aspire (Hannity has often told critics who take him to task over sizable controversies involving breaches of journalism standards that he is not a practitioner of the craft) “To me, this isn’t a ‘gotcha’ moment,” says Hannity. “This is ‘OK, tell me why you believe what you believe? Why do you think your governing philosophy is better?’ And then it’s really going to be up to the audience to decide.” Fox News will pre-empt Greg Gutfeld’s 10 p.m. opinion program, to give Hannity more time for the debate as well as a half hour of reaction to it.
To keep the playing field level, Hannity says he will not use any right-wing media in his use of questions for the two participants. “I won’t cite one conservative publication,” he vows. “I will only use mainstream media sources, and I’ll do that on purpose, because I think there will be a group of people out there saying, ‘Oh, this is on Fox, blah-blah-blah.’ OK, so I’ll use their data, or government data, whatever happens to be out there.”
Hannity is testing his ability to moderate a debate between two diametrically opposed political heavyweights at a moment when the TV-news business faces some heady challenges. Cable-news audiences are among those migrating toward on-demand streaming video, and the advertisers who once felt comfortable with news formats are investing their dollars in new ways, sometimes out of fear that they’ll be called out for sponsoring one opinionated host or another. Fox News’ parent, Fox Corporation, recently reported that ad revenue for its cable properties in its most recent fiscal quarter fell to $290 million, compared with $316 million a year earlier, and cited an “elevated supply in the direct response marketplace” as a primary factor. Direct-response ads, long a staple of cable-news, tend to proliferate in places that mainstream marketers depart. Still, the run-up to the presidential election may offer new hope: Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN are collectively expected to see an 8.4% uptick in ad revenue in 2024, according to projections from Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence.
Fox News Channel has openly experimented with new concepts in recent months. Fox News’ coverage of events tied to the war between Israel and Hamas even spurred pre-emptions of primetime opinion programming by breaking news. Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum co-anchored coverage of an address by President Biden regarding the Israel situation during a recent 8 p.m. hour, normally reserved for conservative host Jesse Watters. For his part, Hannity has embraced doing his program a few nights each week before a live, in-studio audience, whom he hands promotional “Hannity” footballs and entertains visitors with impressions of people such as former President Bill Clinton. He has also anchored longer primetime shows in the midst of breaking-news coverage.
In some ways, Hannity is an unlikely candidate to test new waters. He has been on the Fox News primetime schedule since its launch in 1996, and had some of the spotlight he once enjoyed taken away by colleagues including Tucker Carlson and Megyn Kelly. But Hannity has outlasted both at the network, and continues to win bigger crowds than his time-slot rivals — Kaitlan Collins at CNN and Rachel Maddow and Alex Wagner at MSNBC. He is flanked these days by two younger opinion hosts, Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld, who, while not new to Fox News, were recently elevated to the primetime schedule as hosts for the first time.
Rivals are also testing new ideas that seek to tone things down. MSNBC has expanded the purview of Jen Psaki, the former Biden advisor who now holds forth on both Sundays and Mondays with a decidedly less stentorian presentation than some of her evening-schedule colleagues. CNN has in its early tenure pushed out some of its more provocative personalities, including Don Lemon and Brian Stelter.
Hannity says he isn’t getting soft. “Do you have any doubt who I voted for in the last election?” he asks. But he is open to talking to those whose views with which he disagrees. “I would like to think I’ve matured,” he says, citing research by his radio and TV backers that shows he has been prone to “overtalk people or battle too much” with guests. He keeps his opening monologue in his show as a means of venting. “I have to scratch the itch I have about whatever the day’s news is.” Still, he thinks he has “developed a better ability and desire to listen more.”
He has nabbed some interviews with liberal guests, including Governor Newsom and actor Sean Penn. Penn visited Hannity twice this year, and was initially “very reluctant to come on my show,” the host recalls, telling Hannity, “I don’t trust you,” and citing a segment during which Hannity labeled the actor an “enemy of the state.”
But Hannity says he was “fascinated” with Penn’s trip to Ukraine to make a documentary about its leader and his decision to stay with President Zelenskyy even as he was being targeted by Russia. “He could have gotten the hell out of that,” says Hannity. “I respect that.” Penn didn’t kowtow to Hannity on air, but the host says, “I don’t mind if someone disagrees with me as long as they believe it and they are passionate about it.”
He will be under scrutiny on Thursday when Newsom and DeSantis clash. Can he really resist the temptation to pile on the Democrat when a prominent Republican candidate is vying for the upper hand? Newsom appeared on Hannity’s program for an hour-long interview in June, and appears to have found it fair. Hannity gave assurances the governor would have time to answer questions and that the exchange would not be edited except to fit broadcast time constraints. “We understand we disagree on issues, but we have a friendly relationship,” notes Hannity, who says he can communicate with Newsom by text.
Bret Baier, a Fox News colleague, recently tried to get a debate for his “Speical Report” among three candidates for U.S. Speaker of the House: Rep. Steve Scalise, Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Kevin Hern. When word of the potential event leaked, the officials balked. A red-versus-blue square-off of the sort DeSantis and Newsom have agreed to remains a rare event in TV-news annals, let alone Fox News’ own history.
Hannity wants to delve into issues around energy, income taxes, security and more, and thinks the concept is a natural draw. “You are starting with two very, very bright, intelligent people, two governors of two of our biggest states with two very different governing philosophies,” says Hannity. “We live in a divided America, politically. I can’t think of a better time to have it.”
Indeed, the clash of opposites should be what wins over most viewers, he says. “I don’t want to be a hall monitor,” he says. “The less of me, probably, the better.” Of course, he gets half an hour afterwards to weigh in on the whole thing. And he has many hours to fill in the future.
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