Hannity, Beck mark shift in net's personality

After years of stability, change is coming to Fox News Channel’s lineup. But beyond the new (and departed) faces, a more subtle shift in the network’s balance of power looks to be occurring as well.

For years, Bill O’Reilly has been Fox’s 800-pound gorilla and cable news’ unrivaled ratings leader — the kind of heavyweight whose whims, including an ill-advised lawsuit seeking to squelch Al Franken’s unflattering book, had to be indulged.

Now, however, O’Reilly is giving up his daily radio show, and has become so thin-skinned that segments of “The O’Reilly Factor” are invariably devoted to lashing out at the “smear merchants” and enemies he sees around every corner.

“The people who disparage me don’t watch or listen,” he said not long ago on the radio, reflecting an assumption that legitimate differences of opinion couldn’t possibly explain any of the naysaying directed his way.

On top of that, a new administration has left Republicans in the wilderness, elevating committed partisans — a badge that O’Reilly refuses to wear, despite reserving his harshest rhetoric for what he labels “secular-progressives” and “the loony left” — to the forefront.  

Enter Sean Hannity, anointed 2008′s “Misinformer of the Year” by the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, which are pretty impeccable credentials for exacting loyalty from a hard-right audience. Hannity enjoys a broad platform on radio — where he unabashedly dubs his program “your home for conservatism in exile” — and has joined syndicated titan Rush Limbaugh as the de facto leaders of the opposition with the GOP still reeling from its electoral setbacks.

Hannity will go solo on FNC starting Jan. 12, with junior partner Alan Colmes leaving the perch they shared for a dozen years. Perhaps wisely, Fox decided to dispense with the pretense of objectivity (Colmes was never an equal counterweight, as evidenced by the rightward skew of the topics and targets chosen), providing Hannity the opportunity to expand his already substantial profile.

Fox execs declined to be interviewed, but one suspects they view the incoming administration as a commercial opportunity. With MSNBC having veered left and CNN continuing to step on its own toes thanks to idiotic snafus like booking Kathy Griffin on New Year’s Eve, FNC can further establish itself as comfort food for disgruntled conservatives. After all, more than 50 million people voted for GOP standard-bearer John McCain, and a cable-news channel only needs to attract about 5% of them during primetime to rank as the category’s clear champion.

Hannity’s program is only one of the redeployments occurring at Fox, which under CEO Roger Ailes remained steady while CNN and MSNBC kept reshuffling their decks. Conservative Glenn Beck joins the weekday roster Jan. 19, and Brett Baier has supplanted the retiring Brit Hume as host of FNC’s “Special Report.”

Still, it’s Hannity who occupies the catbird seat, becoming the network’s ostensible focal point. He appears to relish the verbal combat and theatrical aspects of the job. The host also speaks in the kind of nuance-free absolutes that play well to those who want their politics chewed up and regurgitated for them.

As for O’Reilly, he remains a formidable presence, but an increasingly mercurial one — as demonstrated by his spittle-spewing tirade at Congressman Barney Frank (screaming “You’re a coward!”) in October. Throw in the likely seating of old nemesis Franken as a U.S. senator, and he seems that much closer to crossing the line from righteous indignation to full-blown meltdown.

At the same time, Fox continues to shrewdly isolate itself, advancing an “us vs. them” mentality and regularly inveighing against other media with allegations of bias — a cry that’s as much savvy marketing (as in “Trust only us: We’ll give you the true story”) as anything else.

These factors bode well for Fox during an Obama administration, but this month’s uncharacteristic flurry of activity and the stable of talk divas to keep happy could make for a bumpy ride in the short run. Fox’s promos promise that a Colmes-free Hannity will be “completely unleashed,” which is pretty hilarious, as if his puny co-host somehow curbed him. Still, the analogy might be dead on: With conservatives “in exile,” FNC just might be ripe for a new top dog.

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