Tucker Carlson got a gift the other day that might surprise the few million viewers his bosses at Fox News Channel expect to watch when he holds forth at 9 p.m. on the network for the first time Monday night. Rachel Maddow, who anchors MSNBC at the same time, recently sent him flowers.
“I don’t think we vote the same way,” Carlson says of both Maddow, who is part of a lineup of programs that tend to appeal to liberal viewers, and his other time-slot competitor, CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “But I like them, and I respect them. I take them seriously.”
Fox News executives including Rupert Murdoch, the network’s executive chairman, are betting that Carlson’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” will pick up seamlessly from the powerhouse that recently occupied its new time slot. On Friday evening, Megyn Kelly, who has commanded some of cable’s strongest ratings since launching “The Kelly File” at 9 p.m. on Fox in the fall of 2013, signed off, part of a deal that will take her to NBC News. Now, Carlson will be the face Fox News aficionados see after Bill O’Reilly signs off each weekday evening.
“I’m never interested in sucking up and I’m never interested in vigorous agreement. That’s not very elucidating. I want to press people to be direct, no matter who they are,” Carlson said during a recent interview. “The basic idea is I want to talk to people who are involved in events and who are knowledgeable. It’s a pretty simple idea. It has worked pretty well so far.”
Carlson just started anchoring Fox News’ 7 p.m. hour in November, and his ratings there have impressed. His early-evening show – bolstered, no doubt, by coverage of the aftermath of the presidential election – in December captured more viewers between 18 and 49 than rivals at CNN and MSNBC combined, according to Nielsen. Only O’Reilly’s “O’Reilly Factor” last month captured more viewers on Fox News between 25 and 54, the demographic desired by advertisers in news programs.
Carlson’s predecessor shot to fame at Fox News after joining its Washington, D.C. news operations. He has a broader resume.
He’s worked at both MSNBC and CNN over the course of his career, even hosting a late-night program on the former that gave Maddow her first steady cable gig. Guests discussed issues of the day with Carlson in a style that was reminiscent of ESPN’s popular “Pardon the Interruption.” Those appearances marked “the first gig I had in cable,” Maddow recalled in a recent interview. “That show was fun.” Carlson’s resume – he also was a co-host of CNN’s famous “Crossfire,” where he had to shoulder a famous attack on the character of cable news by comedian Jon Stewart – means he’s packing appeal to audiences beyond the Fox News faithful. He joined Fox in 2009 as a contributor, then became part of the weekend team at “Fox & Friends” in 2013 before being granted the 7 p.m. berth.
That experience may arm him against perceptions that Fox News is eager to install a primetime lineup that is always pro-Donald Trump, the President-elect. One of the main pillars of Kelly’s appeal was her willingness to question top Republicans, even Trump while he was on the campaign trail. Sean Hannity, Fox’s 10 p.m. anchor, has made no bones about his support for the incoming administration and O’Reilly, who has acknowledged a friendly relationship with Trump over the years, has been critical of him on occasion.
“Certain ideas work and others don’t. No matter who comes on, I try and filter the questions through that lens,” Carlson said. “I don’t want to do a show where everyone is nodding in agreement. I don’t find that interesting. I would not watch it myself. I don’t think it adds much. I want to hear people from the other side. And this has been my frustration as a viewer: There’s not enough of that. There’s not enough robust, old-fashioned political debate.”
He sees plenty of opportunity for just that. The President-elect is a maverick and Americans are preparing themselves for an era when few established political norms are likely to hold sway. “The normal categories just evaporated,” Carlson said. “You get the impression that this is a debate between left and right and conservative and liberal, and it’s actually more complicated than that.”
Carlson has a long history of digging into political issues. He started his career at Policy Review, a national conservative journal, earning what he said was just $14,000 a year. He would move on to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Weekly Standard. In 2010, he and a longtime friend founded The Daily Caller, a conservative news site in which he will no longer have editorial control.
Carlson recently found himself in the midst of a small controversy due to an exchange on his show. A segment featuring Lauren Duca, a writer for Teen Vogue who was brought on the program to talk about attitudes toward Donald and Ivanka Trump, grew heated. Duca called Carlson “a partisan hack” and Carlson told the writer she should “stick to the thigh-high boots.” Duca later complained of being harassed on social media because of the segment.
“It wasn’t an especially satisfying interview for me,” Carlson said, adding: “I thought she seemed really hostile right out of the gate, more hostile than I was expecting.” But he feels that “I treated her like an adult. She is an adult. I asked her adult questions and she didn’t want to answer them.”
No doubt, Carlson will have more viral moments ahead. With O’Reilly’s lead-in, he is guaranteed a large and passionate audience. All he has to do – more or less – is keep them interested. It’s not as easy as it sounds. “I’d like to keep it friendly. I don’t get anything out of yelling at people,” he said. But he says he won’t let people off the hook either when he wants information. “Asking interesting questions, and calling people when they try to B.S. you? That’s really fun.”