As drama, gossip, and industry chatter has swirled around the 9 pm hour in cable news — with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow now scaling back her time on air, while CNN has yet to settle on a permanent replacement following Chris Cuomo’s ouster — the anchor in that time slot over at Fox News has just broken a record.
As of Thursday, April 21, Fox host Sean Hannity is now the longest-running primetime cable news host in TV history, surpassing the record previously held by the late Larry King. For more than 25 years, Hannity has been a mainstay of the conservative content juggernaut driving Fox overall to cable news dominance, with the network as of February having now spent 20 years as the #1 cable news network in total day and primetime viewership as well as in the key 25-54 demo.
As for Hannity himself, his eponymous hour-long nightly commentary program has ranked #1 in total viewers in addition to winning the key demo for 13 consecutive years since its January 2009 launch. “Eventually,” the Long Island native told me in a phone interview, “you realize if you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to be who you really are.
“I’m very clear with my audience that as a member of the press, I also give opinion. I don’t hide my conservatism. I’m a registered conservative. I tell people who I’m voting for, what politicians I like and why I like them. So that’s sort of like the editorial in the Op-Ed pages of a newspaper. And then we do culture and sports. So what I say is, as a member of the press, I’m like a whole newspaper.”
King of primetime cable news
Of course, that appellation only goes so far with the Fox News veteran, a longtime friend and confidante of President Trump who, while he might compare his show to the broadcast equivalent of a newspaper, also goes out his way to remind me about his assertion from 2007 that “Journalism in America is dead. It doesn’t exist” (And, he adds for good measure, “I had no idea how right I was”).
Lest that declaration ring hollow — coming as it does from one of the highest-profile and highest-paid stars on the most-watched network in cable news — Hannity’s unspoken “but for” is that shows like his and Fox News Channel in general are giving news consumers something they aren’t getting anywhere else.
The numbers, at least, seem to bear that out. And explaining Fox’s and Hannity’s ratings supremacy, by the way, also isn’t as straightforward as trying to draw a 1:1 relationship between Fox audiences and conservatives in general. Nielsen MRI Fusion data, for example, shows that while Fox News obviously draws a majority of the conservative audience on cable news, the network also commands a larger share of self-identified liberals in its audience than both CNN and MSNBC.
“I look at a lot of competitors out there who claim they’re journalists,” Hannity told me, “and they’re not. They’re talk show hosts like I am. And I think they’re dishonest about who they are.
“People will often say to me, ‘You’re not a journalist.’ And I’ll say, you’re right! I’m a member of the press. But I do do journalism, and I can produce for you literally thousands of hours of radio and TV where I do straight news.”
That’s partly a reference to, in addition to the signature conservative commentary that he’s known for, his interviews with newsmakers ranging from Presidents Trump and George W. Bush to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, filmmaker Michael Moore, Olympian Michael Phelps, and Kim Kardashian, to name just a few over the years. Every now and then, in fact, other TV hosts who you’d assume would ordinarily never be caught dead giving Hannity anything that even remotely sounds like praise have actually told their audience to heed his words.
Like when ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel told his viewers in May of 2020 to note Hannity’s warnings about people behaving too carelessly at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks during the early days of Covid. Or MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell in recent days praising Hannity’s “moral courage” when it comes to the latter’s description of Russian president Vladimir Putin as “evil.”
“I don’t really pay a lot of attention to what the critics say,” Hannity added to me. “A long time ago, whatever switch you’re supposed to have that cares about what other people think — that switch is long gone. I don’t care. What I do care about is doing the best shows I can do. Every day. Three hours on radio, and one hour at night, and that’s where my focus is.”
By the numbers
- Hannity ended 2021 as the top-rated cable news program in the 9 PM ET hour, beating CNN and MSNBC by double digits.
- Hannity currently averages more than 3.1 million viewers each night.
- His TV show also regularly shows up in the top five programs in all of cable news.
- Outside of his Fox program, he also hosts Premiere Radio Networks’ The Sean Hannity Show, which is syndicated to 675 stations with 20 million listeners.
Hannity, to be sure, says all the things you’d expect during a conversation with him, on or off the air. He rails against The New York Times for being “mouthpieces of the Democratic party.” Chides “Fake News CNN and MSDNC” for going too soft on President Biden. Dismisses fame as generally an unhealthy thing, talks up his faith in God and raves about how much he still loves the gig, and with as much passion as ever, never mind that he’s just turned 60.
His 9 pm monologue on Fox each night? He’s already workshopping the next one in his head when he wakes up in the morning.
As for reporters, he relishes the opportunity to wallop on them the way he does the heavy bag he hits as part of his workout routine. “How you got into the building, I have no idea,” he once joked (I think) to a colleague of mine who interviewed him at Fox News headquarters in New York. All the things you’d expect, in other words, from the Fox host who’s not only one of Trump’s staunchest allies in the media — he also told me he has no reason to believe the former president won’t run again in 2024.
Here’s one thing, though, that the caricature about him from his critics tends to overlook.
When you tune in to Hannity at 9 pm? You’re just as liable to see him ranting about “Calamity Joe,” as the anti-Biden graphic beside the host read on Wednesday night, as you are to watch a substantive conversation about a topic, like Ukraine, with someone who couldn’t be more ideologically opposed to the Fox host.
Hannity and Penn
One example of the latter came earlier this month, via a live, in-studio interview between Hannity and actor-director Sean Penn. There was a little awkwardness at the beginning, as Hannity got Penn to tell everyone what he’d told Hannity privately, during an initial phone call that the host initiated.
“Do you remember what you first said to me?”
“What did you say?”
“I said that I don’t trust you.”
In that initial conversation, Hannity had told Penn he was interested in the documentary he was shooting in Ukraine, which meant that Penn had seen a lot of the fighting and consequences of the Russian invasion up-close.
Penn ended up deciding that whatever he felt about Hannity’s political leanings was less important than talking about Ukraine to a large audience. And he said as much on air.
“When you step into a country of such incredible unity, you realize what we have all been missing,” Penn said. “And I don’t think that we — I have got time to indulge my lack of trust, which it becomes a petty thing, as people and babies are being vaporized, and that these people are fighting for the very dreams that are the aspiration of all of us Americans.”
Hannity told him the two could talk about political disagreements “if you ever want to come back another day. You’re always invited.”
Replied Penn, “Fair enough.” And then he went on to talk in greater detail about why he thinks Ukraine will ultimately be the victor in the conflict with Russia.
“Not everybody at Fox thinks the same way,” Hannity told me. “There are plenty of people that have very different opinions than I do. And that’s great. Because I think that lives up to its original promise, to be fair and balanced.”