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Interview: Tucker Carlson celebrates 9 p.m. show slot, Fox News' 15th anniversary of beating CNN

This was posted Wednesday, February 1, 2017 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Fox News had a tumultuous 2016 internally but finished the year with its best ratings numbers ever. That trend has continued into the Donald Trump presidency. And the network this week celebrated its 15th anniversary of beating CNN, which is still technically headquartered in Atlanta although the nexus of power is now in New York.

With the ignominious departure of mastermind Roger Ailes, both Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly left Fox News for MSNBC and NBC, respectively. Their exits opened spots (twice) for Tucker Carlson, first Van Susteren's 7 p.m. post, then Kelly's 9 p.m. slot. He began at 9 on January 11, just nine days before Trumps inauguration and so far, Fox News devotees have adjusted without complaint.

To date, he is averaging 3.8 million viewers and 792,000 among 25 to 54 year olds at 9 p.m., beaten only by colleague Bill O'Reilly at 8 p.m. His January viewership is up 50 percent over Kelly's numbers a year ago. He was only at the 7 p.m. slot a couple of months before that and exceeded expectations there.

“In less than two months," Rupert Murdoch noted in a statement when Carlson was moved to 9, "Tucker has taken cable news by storm with his spirited interviews and consistently strong performance. Viewers have overwhelmingly responded to the show and we look forward to him being a part of Fox News’ powerful prime-time line-up.”

Carlson is unusual because he has worked at all three major cable networks. He began his TV career at CNN, working there from 2000 to 2005 including time at "Crossfire," moved to MSNBC from 2005 to 2009 and then Fox News since 2009.

I spoke with Carlson last week before Trump's immigration-focused executive order on Friday. Here are excerpts:

Q: So you were at CNN when Fox News took over the ratings crown. What was that like?

Carlson: I'll never forget it. I was hosting a show there for awhile. I actually was at the first Fox News broadcast covering Bob Dole. I was aware of Fox from the beginning. I didn't think they had a very good chance of succeeding. Nobody had taken them seriously at all. CNN's biggest show at the time was 'Larry King Live.' I was fill-in anchor sometimes. I knew Larry and I love Larry. He is a great guy. More than that, he was the tent pole of the whole channel. I'll never forget the day 'Hannity & Colmes' beat Larry King at 9. I was in a meeting with a bunch of executives. There was disbelief. But they refused to take it seriously. One of the executives at the meeting attacked Fox viewers as if they didn't matter or they didn't really count because the viewers weren't impressive. It wasn't a real win. I mean, the numbers were the numbers. This was not really a good thing. They didn't seem bothered by it at all.

Q: I'm sure after awhile, they had to take Fox seriously.

Carlson: By the time I left in January 2005, it was clear something was really wrong with CNN. Fox was just utterly dominant. That's never changed in all the years since. But no one there ever talked about it. There was never any discussion that I heard. Maybe we were doing something wrong. We should have adjusted. They never asked, 'What does this say about us?' There was a sense that CNN was morally superior. We're just better. They may be more popular but we're better people.

Q: Perhaps that attitude is what led to this current presidency.

Carlson: The 2016 election. I think they're closely related. This idea that we don't want them anyway. We don't like those people. We don't want them in our club. I guess that's comforting to them. There's a kind of snobbish attitude that they're stupid and nasty. Just because someone doesn't buy your product doesn't mean they're immoral. I don't assume that. I live in a neighborhood where nobody agrees with me. I don't think they're morally inferior. I think a lot of them are really great people. We just disagree.

Q: How has the 9 p.m. show been for you so far?

Carlson: It's been totally fun. It's been completely fun. I haven't had a single day I haven't enjoyed. It was the same at 7 p.m. Of course, people under-estimate the role of luck in life. Just being in the right place at the right time. They think I'm succeeding because I'm a great person. I deserve it! I don't think that. I never think that. I always think there's a lot of life you can't control. People are standing on the side of the road and get mowed down by a bus. That doesn't mean anything. Their luck ran out. I feel just the opposite.

Q: How big a deal is it to be at 9?

Carlson: It's mostly the network. I've worked at all three places. I know you could put on a good show that nobody watches. Whereas on Fox, if you have something to say, you can be assured people will see it. It's a strong channel that understands its viewers. What I'm saying is I'm the beneficiary of Fox's success. I'm not going to lie about that.

Q: What do you feel you bring to the table?

Carlson: I only have one thing to offer: I want to ask the obvious questions. There's no voodoo or complex strategy. I want to bring in people close to the story, not just analysts and talking heads. I like to ask simple questions and then listen to what they say.

Q: President Trump likes to watch Fox News. Is it weird knowing he might react to something you say on Twitter?

Carlson: No. I never think anything like that. When I'm sitting in the studio, the only people I see are my camera man and the stage manager and the only person I think is watching is my wife. I try to focus on the guests. If you start thinking about the audience and who is watching, it can rattle you. I like to just focus.

Q: Greta just left for MSNBC. She has now worked at all three cable news networks like you.

Carlson: I think we're the only members of that club. We worked together at CNN and we always got along. I think one great thing about her is she's a worker. Greta is not lazy. She's up early, she goes to bed late. She really tries hard.

Q: The folks at [MSNBC's morning show] 'Morning Joe' just complimented you.

Carlson: I worked with them, too. I know them. I know Joe [Scarborough]. I like Joe. Willie Geist is a good friend of mine. He was my producer. He's one of my favorite people, period. In and out of television, he's just a fantastic guy. I would want one of my girls to marry Willie Geist. He's honestly the best. The smartest, funniest, nicest, totally decent person. He's an unusual guy.

Q: Trump is keeping everyone on their toes. How are you handling it?

Carlson: I'm just trying to figure out what the hell is going on! Everything is changing. Trump is challenging most of the orthodoxies of the Republican party. He's driving the Democrats into a state of hysteria for reasons that aren't exactly clear. Trump is a lot closer to their positions on economics than any Republican has ever been yet they hate him more. Clearly, we're watching everything change politically.

Q: Why do you think Fox News is doing even better since the election?

Carlson: I think at least part of it is our viewers are engaged and interested in ideas. People always say cable news is purely partisan and people want to watch their team. I don't know. That's not what's going on at all. Certainly I think at least some of our viewers are not Trump supporters. There's this sincere curiosity of what is happening. People are watching not just us. All cable networks are bringing in viewers. It's more than just partisan fighting It's about redesigning both political parties. We have had ideological gridlock for more than 30 years in terms of the debate. The Soviet Union went away. Other than that, it's been pretty much the same series of debates I know I've been involved in. All of a sudden, the debates are not about capital gains cuts or marginal tax rates. A Republican president is pushing for a bigger infrastructure spending bill that a lot of Republicans are comfortable with. It's super interesting.

Q: How do you manage not to get overwhelmed in terms of what to address any given night?

Carlson: I try to put at least one lighter moment in the show as a respite, as a relief. You can't be that intense for an entire hour. My favorite new example is Tulsi Gabbard. She's a House Democrat in Hawaii, a sincere liberal. Her foreign policy views are closer to those of Trump than her own party. What does that tell you? It's amazing. She was one of the first people he met after he was elected. They agreed on Syria, which is incredible. I am a fascinated observer. Some things I don't know what to think about. I don't have strong opinions on every thing. I'm trying to figure out what to think, which makes it more interesting.


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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.