A year ago, Fox News considered a breakup with Trump. 2021 changed those plans.

FILE - A man walks past promotional posters outside Fox News studios at News Corporation headquarters in New York on Saturday, July 31, 2021. From left to right are hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Maria Bartiromo, Stuart Varney, Neil Cavuto and Charles Payne. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation says that people who trust Fox News Channel and other outlets that appeal to conservatives are more likely to believe COVID-19 falsehoods than those who go elsewhere for news. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In the weeks before the 2020 election, as Fox News executives and luminaries came to terms with its possible outcome, some began to see in it a long-awaited opportunity - a chance to break up with Donald Trump.

Even the president sensed a growing distance from the network that was once so closely aligned with him. "What's the biggest difference between this and four years ago?" he asked rhetorically during an Election Day appearance on "Fox & Friends," skipping over obvious choices such as U.S. foreign relations, immigration policy or the makeup of the federal courts. "I say Fox," he answered. "It's much different now."

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The sentiment was held most fervently on Fox's news side and in its Washington bureau, according to current and former Fox News personalities familiar with the dynamic who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. Many felt the network's identity had become too tightly bound up with its opinion hosts - some of whom had become not just on-air cheerleaders but behind-the-scenes advisers for a president adored by their viewers - at the expense of its old self-forged image as a "fair and balanced" news operation.

Yet the post-Trump era opened for Fox with a ratings drop that quickly prompted a recalibration of those 2021 visions.

Now, one year later, the dream some harbored of distancing from Trump is long over. The biggest threat Fox now faces is a pair of looming lawsuits from two voting technology companies that claim the network, far from turning away from him, allowed Trump-allied personalities - including on-air hosts as well as guests - to falsely malign them with bogus conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud.

Over the course of the year, Fox managed to reassert itself as the No. 1-ranked cable programmer - and full-heartedly realigned itself with the former president and his supporters.

It's a hard-fought triumph that has allowed Fox executives to shrug off two other recent developments that, at least to outsiders, further undermined its credentials as a news broker - the departure of veteran anchor Chris Wallace and the revelation of panicked texts three of its hosts sent to Trump's chief of staff, urging him to calm the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.

And it highlights a dynamic affecting the entire cable-news industry at a time when the era's polarized politics increasingly steer viewers' decisions about what to watch.

"The universe of cable news viewers is declining, so you need to get more out of the existing viewers," said Chris Stirewalt, a former politics editor for Fox News, who compares cable news to "the tobacco industry circa 1988, where you have addiction as your path to profit" - and a strong motivation for channels to give their most loyal audiences the worldviews they desire. "A lot of Fox's decisions (suggest) that they are following that route."

Irena Briganti, a Fox News spokesperson, attributed the network's ratings dominance to its staff - "not just our news and opinion talent, but the many enterprising members of the team who work behind the scenes to put a top-notch product on the air," she said. "It's because of our great people that we consistently have more Americans watching Fox News each day than our competitors combined."

Stirewalt's own career at Fox reflects some of the network's pivots in its fight to stay on top. He was once part of a team that had won respect throughout the media business - Fox's nonpartisan "decision desk," known for its sharp and clearheaded analysis of election returns.

But the decision desk's performance on election night 2020 set in motion some of the drama Fox would confront in early 2021. The network was the first media outlet to project that Joe Biden would win the traditional red state of Arizona, an announcement that enraged the Trump camp and prompted an angry phone call from the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner to Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls Fox News's parent company.

Murdoch declined to overrule the decision desk, whose projection proved to be accurate. But when Trump lost, he declared war on Fox, railing against the network for its Arizona call and avidly promoting two far smaller news channels, Newsmax and One America News, that were beginning to carve out a niche among the Trump faithful.

Weeks later, Stirewalt says, he was fired, while another executive involved with the Arizona call abruptly retired. Fox says that Stirewalt's job was simply eliminated in a larger staff restructuring and notes that the network recently renewed the contract of Arnon Mishkin, the consultant who has run its decision desk for years.

The next test for Fox - and those on-air personalities who had publicly championed Trump for so long - came on Jan. 6. Some of the network's opinion hosts spent the subsequent weeks and months downplaying the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol by hoards of Trump supporters or implying it had been started by left-wing agitators. In the moment, though, texts would later show Fox hosts Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Brian Kilmeade beseeching the president to calm the mobs and enforce the peace.

"This is hurting all of us," Ingraham wrote to Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows, in a text message revealed last week by the House select committee investigating the attack, echoing some concerns she shared on air that night. "He is destroying his legacy."

In January 2021, for the first time in 20 years, Fox reported monthly ratings that fell behind both of its main cable news competitors, CNN and MSNBC.

Now Fox is back on top, announcing that it was on track to complete its sixth year as the highest-ranking channel in all of cable, not just cable news. But it comes after a year of high-profile defections, criticism and lawsuits challenging the claims it allowed on the air.

And Fox's resurgence tracks with the growing influence within the company of Tucker Carlson, prime-time host of the network's most-watched show.

In November, Carlson produced a documentary series - released on the network's streaming service, Fox Nation, but promoted on Fox News - that floated unfounded theories that the Jan. 6 attack was an inside job by the government to target Trump supporters. ("They've begun to fight a new enemy in a new war on terror," Carlson intoned in the first episode. " ... an actual war, soldiers and paramilitary agencies hunting down American citizens.")

The Carlson series drew howls of condemnation not just from critics outside Fox but some whispers of dissent within the network as well, including from anchors Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. In November, two longtime Fox News contributors, Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, cited Carlson's special - "a collection of incoherent conspiracy-mongering, riddled with factual inaccuracies, half-truths, deceptive imagery, and damning omissions" - as their primary rationale for resigning from the network.

Even Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of the network's parent company Fox Corp., was troubled by the incendiary trailer for the series, according to people who spoke with him. Yet the series continued to air on Fox Nation, which further lent Carlson an air of untouchability inside Fox. (Asked for comment, Brian Nick, a spokesperson for Lachlan Murdoch, said, "When Lachlan has a concern, he addresses it internally with the team, not through the media.")

A larger concern for Fox executives appears to be a pair of billion-dollar lawsuits filed by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic Corp. alleging defamation by the network for allowing Trump allies such as Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell to air false claims of election fraud, including on shows hosted by Carlson, Hannity and Jeanine Pirro.

Last week, a judge rejected Fox's motion to dismiss the Dominion case, allowing it to move forward. Fox has called the suit "baseless" and an "all-out assault on the First Amendment," arguing that the network "vigorously covered the breaking news surrounding the unprecedented 2020 election, providing full context of every story with in-depth reporting and clear-cut analysis."

The departure of Wallace drew far more attention, as the veteran anchor announced last week he is leaving Fox to host a show for rival CNN's forthcoming streaming service. Over his 18 years at the network, executives had repeatedly hailed Wallace's nonpartisan credentials as a tough, skeptical questioner as proof of Fox's commitment to news.

But Fox insiders were quick to downplay his move, arguing that it will mean little to a core Fox audience that gravitates to its highly-charged opinion hours. And they crowed over the coup achieved one week later by Baier, who scored the must-see interview of the day while temporarily holding down Wallace's old "Fox News Sunday" seat, when Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., announced on the show that he would vote against President Joe Biden's domestic spending plan.

It was proof, in Fox's view, that the show's powers lay not in who sat in the interviewer's chair - but the substantial number of loyal viewers guaranteed to tune into Fox at any hour.

"Fox's programming decisions are a reflection of their audience," said Rob Horowitz, a communications consultant who teaches a course on politics and media at the University of Rhode Island. "That's where the audience is, but the audience is there in part because that's where Fox leads them."

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