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Jesse Watters, Fox News’s new Tucker Carlson, explained

Can the smarmy “lightweight” fill Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson’s shoes?

Fox News host Jesse Watters.
Jesse Watters is Fox News’ permanent 8 pm host. Can he keep the Fox News flagship from running aground?
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.

Fox News’s Tucker Carlson-free primetime lineup has been revealed, as has Carlson’s replacement: Jesse Watters. If you’re a Fox News watcher, Watters is a familiar face to you. His appeal beyond Fox News loyalists is an open question. And we’ll get an answer to it pretty soon.

Watters, 44, was raised in Philadelphia, to “aging hippies” who vehemently disagree with his political views. (His mother’s disappointed texts to her son have been featured on his shows.) Like Carlson, Watters graduated from Trinity College with a history degree. Unlike Carlson, he joined Fox News soon after graduating, working his way up from a production assistant to, now, the host of the channel’s flagship show. Along the way, he’s been embroiled in a few controversies, from a racist man-on-the-street segment to a recent admission on The Five afternoon roundtable show that he deflated the tires of a much younger associate producer he was interested in so she’d have to get a ride home from him. That producer is now Watters’s wife, so he said it had a happy ending — although maybe not so much for Watters’s ex-wife, who was still married to him at the time this all supposedly happened. Watters later claimed the tire story was a joke.

Watters has the same smarmy-white-guy air that his predecessors, Carlson and Bill O’Reilly, did. Over the years, Fox has groomed Watters from being O’Reilly’s correspondent and protégé to hosting his own weekend show, to becoming the main host of Fox’s successful The Five as well as his own 7 pm weeknight show, Jesse Watters Primetime.

But what sets Watters apart is that O’Reilly and Carlson both came to Fox after years of serious journalistic and on-air experience at other outlets. They had distinct personalities and ownership of their respective shows. Watters, however, has been at Fox News for his entire career and still struggles to come off as a serious and informed personality; he used to describe himself as a “political humorist.” O’Reilly and Carlson have never had this problem. Even much-fired journalist Keith Olbermann said the choice of Watters was a surprise to him because “even in that world he’s considered a lightweight.”

Watters also has a big job ahead of him: to recapture the ratings Fox lost in the aftermath of Carlson’s sudden departure and the loss of his flagship show. Fox’s ratings in Carlson’s old time slot cratered as Calson’s faithful viewers have switched off or switched over to conservative rival networks, like Newsmax. And, despite legal letters from Fox demanding that he not do so, Carlson has wasted no time in trying to recreate his Fox show on Twitter, where he monologues out of what appears to be a barn. Now, with a permanent 8 pm host in place on Fox News, we may be seeing a real battle between old media and new.

“Fox News Channel has been America’s destination for news and analysis for more than 21 years and we are thrilled to debut a new lineup,” Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott said in a statement.

The rest of that lineup: Sean Hannity’s Hannity will stay at 9 pm, Laura Inagraham’s The Ingraham Angle will shift from 10 pm to 7, taking Watters’s old slot, and Fox News’s other golden boy, Greg Gutfeld, will move his late-night comedy show Gutfeld! to the less-late 10 pm. Gutfeld!, helped along by its host’s rebellious imp persona, has done well for the network. We’ll see if the 10 pm crowd has the same appetite for Gutfeld’s brand of smirky, lib-owning, anti-woke humor as the 11 pm audience did.

Tucker Carlson.
Previous man of the 8 pm hour and new Twitter host Tucker Carlson.
Jason Koerner/Getty Images

Watters will also be competing for attention with the person he replaced, who serves as a constant reminder of what Fox News has lost. Tucker Carlson is refusing to stay quiet, despite Fox’s demands that he do so, including a cease-and-desist letter. Carlson is still under contract to Fox News, which has every interest in keeping him silent until that contract runs out. Carlson doesn’t care or thinks an argument that Twitter posts aren’t a breach of contract will hold up.

Either way, he’s posting through it. So far, he’s put up six episodes of “Tucker on Twitter,” the latest of which promoted Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s candidacy and — as has become a recurrent theme in Carlson’s Twitter shows — excoriated the mainstream media in which he was only recently a major player.

There is a lot riding on both men’s shows. Carlson’s success will allow him to enjoy a similar foothold in the media and society that he had when he was at Fox News, and it’ll give some legitimacy to Elon Musk’s plans to make Twitter a more creator- and video-focused platform. Carlson’s failure will do the opposite. If Watters falters, Fox News’s temporary post-Carlson ratings dive could become the new norm for a network that is desperate to hold on to its viewers and do almost anything to appease them, as texts from the Dominion trial showed.

It will take some time before we can declare a winner, if there is one. It took Carlson months to regain the ratings lost when O’Reilly left; it’d be unfair not to give Watters a similar amount of time. And while Carlson’s Twitter show appears to be getting massive viewing numbers, with tens of millions of “views” per Twitter’s metrics, those metrics are misleading. A “view” means someone watched a video for at least two seconds. Since many people have videos on autoplay, you may “view” a video as you scroll through your timeline. And that’s assuming the view counts are truthful in the first place; at this point, Musk doesn’t have the best reputation for honesty when it comes to Twitter.

Fox News’s ratings, on the other hand, are from an independent third party, Nielsen, which measures how many people watched a show as it aired (with additional categories to measure viewership in the days after). As in, they actually watched it, not just happened to see two seconds as they flipped past it. So you can’t compare Carlson’s tens of millions of views to Fox News’s ratings. That won’t stop Musk’s cheerleaders from doing it anyway.

Which is not to say that Fox News doesn’t have a big ratings problem. It was down 37 percent in primetime in May, the first full Tucker-free month, compared to the year before. More worryingly, its 25-to-54 demographic dropped 62 percent. MSNBC has seen a 14 percent increase overall and in the 25-to-54 demo; CNN dropped 25 percent overall and in the 25-to-54 demo, but it has its own problems.

The new Fox News lineup and the Carlson/Twitter versus Watters/Fox News action will begin on July 17.

Correction, June 27, 10:40 am ET: A previous version of this story misnamed the college Carlson and Watters attended. It was Trinity College.

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