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Last week, the Fox News roundtable show “The Five” marked 10 years on the air with carnival games, stunt-performing dogs, cake and country singer John Rich performing an original tune called “Shut Up About Politics.”
Rich’s ditty could serve as the score for the state of topical talk programs, long a staple of TV news. As politics gets more fractious, a format like “The Five” — where a freewheeling regular cast of partisan personalities hashes out issues every day on live television — is more challenging.
“The polarization of the audience and the country is more heightened than ever,” said Hilary Estey McLoughlin, a veteran talk show producer who oversaw ABC’s daytime show “The View” for nearly six years. “It’s a fine line, especially on a show where you have to interact on a daily basis and get along enough so they have a collegial atmosphere.”
The devoted audience for "The Five" — often the second most-watched show in cable news — watched that polarization play out in real time over the past year.
Six weeks before “The Five” celebrated its long-running success, the show lost its longtime lone liberal voice, Juan Williams. The Washington, D.C.-based political analyst opted out of returning to the network’s New York studio after more than a year of broadcasting remotely with right-leaning cohosts Dana Perino, Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters, and contentious tussles over twice-impeached former president Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The sudden departure raised eyebrows in TV news circles, as it followed Fox News’ recent moves to add more conservative hosts to its lineup. Even as Fox News has tacked further right, “The Five” remained a rare place where viewers were regularly exposed to robust pushback from a liberal voice.
Fox News executives insist Williams, who is still employed by the network as a political analyst, will be replaced with another liberal commentator. In recent weeks, Williams' old chair has been filled by former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr.— considered a frontrunner as a permanent replacement — Jessica Tarlov, research director at Bustle and a former Democratic political strategist, and Richard Fowler, a gay Black progressive commentator.
Veteran journalist Geraldo Rivera also has appeared, but as a longtime pal of former president Donald Trump, he’s not considered a contender for the full-time role.
Whoever takes the chair will have to have a tough skin. During the Trump White House years, the cable news channels became more focused on satisfying political tribes who tune in to hear like-minded commentary, with less tolerance among viewers for dissent.
"You have to find people who have the resilience to plow ahead," McLoughlin said. "It’s almost like being waterboarded both on air and off air."
While Fox News maintains it was Williams’ decision not to return to the show’s New York studio, tension among the cohosts became apparent to viewers in recent months. Williams was unhappy with his conservative cohorts' dismissive attitude toward former President Trump’s role in instigating the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol. It boiled over on Feb. 10 when the network cut away from Trump's second impeachment hearing for “The Five,” and the panel quickly moved on to lighter subjects, further angering Williams.
(Fox News is facing two defamation lawsuits related to statements made by hosts and guests on its air about alleged fraud in the 2020 election. No hosts or segments on "The Five" were cited in the suits. Fox has filed motions to dismiss both cases.)
Megan Albano, the Fox News vice president in charge of weekend opinion programming and "The Five," said the events of the past year were not a factor in the cast change.
“I wouldn't say that it was getting too combative with Juan,” Albano said. "I think just the topics that we were covering had higher stakes, and that's what we all have been living through in the last year."
Cohost Watters, 43, believes broadcasting remotely during the pandemic diminished the crew's on-set camaraderie.
"Having everybody in separate studios, you can't read body language, there's a two-second delay, your humor is off, your timing's bad, and you just stare into the screen and just unload like a machine gun," he said.
Williams declined to comment for this story, citing the statement he made during his last day on the air.
It’s not just liberals who are feeling unloved at the TV talk table. Conservative commentator Meghan McCain is leaving “The View” later this month after repeatedly clashing with her more tenured left-leaning cohosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar.
Republican Rick Santorum, one of the few remaining right-wing voices appearing regularly on CNN’s roundtables, was cut loose by the network after he made remarks at a conference that diminished Native Americans.
The moves reflect the increasingly intractable nature of political talk on TV.
Historically, topical discussion shows were even match-ups. Conservative William F. Buckley took on liberal thinkers for a full hour on his long-running show “Firing Line.” CNN’s “Crossfire” matched up commentators on each side of the roundtable (including Tucker Carlson on the right before he became a Fox News star).
Whoever gets Williams’ role — and Fox News is in no hurry to fill it — he or she will have to deal with the occasional pile-on by their conservative cohosts. Cable news networks now tend to cater to the political tribes who watch them. As a result, opposing viewpoints are rarely given equal time.
Watters, who joined the program in 2016 after making his name on the network by doing ambush interviews, believes the ratio of viewpoints at "The Five" resembles the lives of viewers.
"The 4-on-1 dynamic exists outside of the show if you have a family," said Watters, who at times reads critical tweets from his liberal mother during the program. "A lot of my friends are Democrats, and I'm the only conservative in the group."
Even with a countervailing voice on "The Five," the Trump loyalists who watch Fox News aren't likely to hear anything that will rile them up too much.
When it was suggested that Trump's constant grievances, ranting and whining about media treatment are not characteristics Fox News would have accepted from previous politicians, the cohosts defended him. They also play down the notion that the network has moved far to the right.
"There have been changes obviously as parties evolve," said Perino, 49, who worked for former President George W. Bush. "And it's really interesting to live through a political realignment. I don't think the people at CNN four years ago would've been for defunding the police."
Since President Joe Biden has taken office, "The Five" has spent less time discussing the machinations at the White House and on Capitol Hill and focused more on cultural and social issues. In recent days, the hosts have devoted time to Britney Spears' conservatorship battle, rising crime rates in U.S. cities, Olympic contender Sha'Carri Richardson's positive drug test, mocking CNN for having once touted now-imprisoned lawyer Michael Avenatti's 2020 presidential aspirations and taste-testing Kraft's mac and cheese ice cream.
Watters recently joked to viewers that a segment on the manufacture of a gun resembling a Lego toy was chosen because "Joe Biden is so boring." But the program did weigh in on the president's recent speech on voting rights. Ford calmly barreled through, stressing the need to make it easier to vote, while the other cohosts claimed Biden's words were racially divisive.
The formula for "The Five" has proved durable. While all of cable news has seen ratings decline in the post-Trump era, “The Five” has seen its competitive position improve. Even though the program airs at 5 p.m. Eastern, it's often the second most-watched show in cable news behind “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
The audience has grown 97% since the show's debut a decade ago, averaging 2.5 million viewers in June according to Nielsen data. The fan passion runs deep. Residents at the Villages — a retirement community in Florida — have been known to gather at one another’s homes for watch parties of "The Five."
The cohosts' lighter approach also has helped with advertising sales. While many companies steer clear of Fox News' prime-time shows due to the occasionally incendiary comments by hosts, more than 200 advertisers ran commercials on "The Five" in 2020 that had not run in the program in 2019.
“The Five” launched in 2011 when the network needed a replacement for right-wing polemicist Glenn Beck, who alienated advertisers with byzantine conspiracy theories and remarks about former president Barack Obama. Fox News Media Chief Executive Suzanne Scott played a key role in the rapid development and launch of the program.
Members of “The Five” get a list of topics six hours before show time in order to do research and hone opinions and commentary. While conversations are akin to a session of after-work cocktails, the cohosts spend hours researching and constructing remarks without consulting one another.
"Actually we don't talk about it all day," Perino said. "I mean, we just do our own thing and then we show up on the set, and then we talk about it.
"It's like a band," said Gutfeld, 56. "When you've been doing something long enough, everybody knows how they play."
When fans see a cohost on the street or in a restaurant, they come up and talk as if they are already acquainted. "We actually like our viewers," said Gutfeld. "We have a relationship with them. We don't talk down to them."
The popularity of "The Five" has been solid enough to withstand two scandals that led to the sudden exit of past cohosts. In May 2017, Democratic consultant Bob Beckel was jettisoned after making an insensitive remark to a Fox News employee. Later that year, conservative Eric Bolling was removed after an investigation into sexually inappropriate photos and texts that were sent to female employees.
Fox News is expanding the format to other hours as well, launching weekend roundtable programs called "The Big Saturday Show" and "The Big Sunday Show." Albano oversees both of them. It's a continuation of the network's push into more personality-driven talk programming that viewers will make an appointment to see instead of depending on the news cycle.
"The Five" also has served as a talent incubator. Gutfeld now has his own "Five"-esque late-night program, "Gutfeld!"; it's an out-of-the-box time-period leader in the ratings. Perino long had her own afternoon show and now cohosts "America's Newsroom."
Watters, who currently has a bestselling humor book, "How I Saved the World," has filled in on "Fox News Primetime" to strong ratings, leading to speculation that he could be next to get a daily show (he currently hosts "Watters' World" on Saturdays).
Watters, whose shtick is tongue-in-cheek bravado, said he was unaware his stint had done well with the audience, an admission that was met with skepticism by his cohosts as they talked in the green room outside the show's midtown Manhattan studio.
"Why so modest all of a sudden?" Perino said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.