Monday, October 10, 2011

Victory Lap for Fox and Hannity

ATLANTA — When the Fox News host Sean Hannity arrived at Centennial Olympic Park here on Thursday night, some of the hundreds of fans who had been waiting for him since sunset rushed to the rope line for handshakes and autographs. He obliged, then bounded onto a temporary stage two blocks from the CNN Center and asked them mischievously, “Do you think it’s any coincidence that the CNN logo is in the background?”

Knowing the crowd would get a kick out of it, one of Mr. Hannity’s guests, the Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, chimed in. “That’s gonna get them their biggest rating of the night.”

Mr. Hannity had come to Atlanta not to stick it to CNN — though that proved to be fun, too — but to take note of a remarkable anniversary in the city where he was plucked by Roger Ailes out of relative obscurity 15 years ago, when the Fox News Channel was born.

Few thought Fox could unseat CNN, then the country’s dominant cable news channel, but it did, upending the television news business in the United States and providing conservative politicos a powerful megaphone.

Now, Fox is the envy of the media industry for its popularity, and perhaps too for its consistency — something that Mr. Hannity embodies, as the only host on the channel to have the same time slot, 9 p.m., for all 15 years.

Fox’s popularity — it’s the No. 4 cable channel in prime time this year, according to the Nielsen Company — has allowed it to gradually raise its advertising prices and its carriage fees and become one of the News Corporation’s biggest profit centers. The company will soon be going back to distributors to renew its carriage deals, most likely for far more than the roughly $1 per subscriber that the channel earns now. Fox had suggested it should be in the same league as ESPN, which costs about $4 per subscriber. Distributors know that some subscribers feel they can’t live without hosts like Mr. Hannity and his all-important lead-in, Bill O’Reilly.

Mr. Hannity, 49, who calls himself a Reagan conservative, has taken to heart the former president’s famous speech about displaying “bold colors” instead of “pale pastels.” He rarely if ever wavers from his views and campaigns relentlessly against President Obama.

“With all of the most successful cable news shows, you know what you are getting every night — they have a clear identity and mission,” said Dan Abrams, a former general manager of MSNBC and a former 9 p.m. host there. “There is probably no host on cable whose identity and mission is clearer than Sean Hannity’s.”

Viewers have rewarded that clarity. “Hannity” had an average of 2.1 million viewers in the first nine months of the year, 528,000 of whom were in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic that advertisers covet — a subgroup that numbered as many as CNN and MSNBC had put together.

“Our viewers are loyal to us, and we’re loyal to them,” said John Finley, Mr. Hannity’s executive producer, who is a symbol of behind-the-scenes stability, having worked on the show for 12 years. The open-to-the-public show in Atlanta, he said, was a way to thank viewers, part of Fox’s 15th anniversary tour across the country.

At a staff party last month Mr. Ailes, then as now the chief executive and chairman of Fox News, pointed out that its prime-time lineup had changed just “a few times” in 15 years while the other cable news channels “have collectively changed it 63 times.”

Like Mr. Hannity, Mr. O’Reilly is a Fox original, having started as the 6 p.m. host and having stayed put at 8 p.m. since 1998. The third prime-time host, Greta Van Susteren, has had the 10 p.m. spot since 2002.

“Shows, stars, I mean it’s sad, you know?” Mr. Ailes said of the competition, as if looking in the rearview mirror. “I called and asked them all to move to the second floor wherever they were working. Because when they jump, I don’t want it to hurt.”

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