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Behind Fox News’ Primetime Shuffle, An Effort to Thwart Digital Distraction

With more newshounds seeking breaking stories on mobile devices, leading cable-news outlet wants to keep them glued to its screens

Fox News Channel has trumped its usual competitors – CNN and MSNBC – in the ratings for years, but now it is set to tilt its lance at rivals who may well be unshakable: smartphones and tablets.

With more consumers accustomed to turning to their mobile devices when big stories erupt, the leader in cable news is shaking up its prime-time lineup, starting tonight, and putting veteran Shepard Smith at the helm of a new breaking-news unit that will, when appropriate, interrupt shows hosted by mainstays like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

The idea, said Jay Wallace, Fox News Channel’s vice president for news and senior exec producer for news and politics, is to give viewers news quickly to keep them from going elsewhere to get it, all the while maintaining the spirited programming for which Fox News has become known.

“There is a whole new way that people are watching TV, with the whole second-screen experience,” Wallace explained. “We are going to have to bring more than news headlines or just happy talk. We have to fight for those viewers,” he added.

To do so, Fox News is rearranging one of the most stable primetime lineups on TV – the first time it has done so in more than 11 years, and only the fifth time it has made such a shift in its 17-year history. Gone is the outlet’s traditional evening newscast in the form of a 7 p.m. program anchored by Shepard Smith. Sean Hannity and Greta van Susteren, both network stalwarts, will hold forth in new time slots (marking the first time in the network’s history Hannity has not anchored the 9 p.m. hour). And popular Megyn Kelly will start “The Kelly File” at 9 p.m., a live hour she recently vowed on-air would be a “breaking news program, not an opinion program.” The new lineup puts two female anchors into the mix.

The reshuffling comes as more aficionados of news are turning to a device other than a TV set to get it. An August 2012 study by Pew Research found 64% of tablet owners get news on their devices weekly, with 37% doing so daily. The findings, Pew said, are “nearly identicial” for owners of smartphones, 62% of whom say they consume news on their device weekly and 36% daily.

“Being online was one thing, but the smartphones and social media have sort of made it essential to play in a lot of these spaces,” said Wallace.

Going forward, Smith will be able to determine when a news event “rises to a level” where his team ought to get on air, Wallace said. In doing so, his group can start booking experts, arranging data and following leads, all the while showing viewers what information is surfacing in various venues and how much of it is reliable. The anchor and Fox News executives don’t want his appearances “to be gimmicky,” said Wallace, and there will have to be some balance between when Smith appears and when the scheduled program covers what’s happening.

The addition of Kelly to the lineup will help serve that purpose, he said. “There have been times when big stories have happened when we’ve been in our primetime lineup and we’ve had to sort of marshal outside forces” among other parts of the news staff, said Wallace. “Having someone like Megyn on hand on a lot of these big stories is going to help make the primetime lineup more nimble when it comes to covering hard news.”

The lineup shift takes place as Fox News has seen slippage in its ratings. While it continues to garner more audience than its rivals by a significant amount, Fox News ‘s prime time schedule attracted an average of 293,000 people between 25 and 54 – the demographic advertisers seek from news programming – year to date as of Sept 15, according to Nielsen, compared with an average of 388,000 in a comparable year-earlier period. Fox News’ Wallace said the primetime moves had little to do with the general ratings, which reflect the network’s audience after a year leading up to a presidential election, coverage of which generally draws a broader audience.

Ratings have increased in recent weeks. From August to September 2013, Fox News Channel;’s ratings in the 25 to 54 demographic is up 15% and up 5% in total viewers, according to Nielsen.

Ad buyers believe the new schedule could broaden the Fox News audience and give the network a new jolt in its quest to deliver the older, upscale viewers its sponsors expect.

The primetime maneuvers are only the latest in a larger set of moves at the 21st Century Fox-owned network, which has also added new hosts and moved on-air personnel around in other time slots. Elisabeth Hasselbeck, known for her tenure on “The View,” has joined morning show “:Fox and Friends.” Gretchen Carlson, a former mainstay of the morning program, has moved to host her own program in the afternoon. Howard Kurtz, the former host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” now hosts Fox News’ Sunday media-criticism program,”MediaBuzz.” And Fox News recently announced that George Will, a mainstay of ABC News’ “This Week,” joined as a contributor.

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