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Fox News Shakes Up its Long-Stable Program Lineup

Ad buyers see move to keep momentum in post-election year

Fox News Channel has long burnished slogans such as “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide.” But it may just as well have used this old chestnut: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

For years, the 21st Century Fox-owned cable-newser has dominated its category, and as such, it’s had little reason to make the schedule and program changes more common at rivals CNN and MSNBC.

In 2013, however, FNC is planning some changes of its own. Earlier this month, the news outlet announced it will place popular anchor Megyn Kelly in primetime, with a new schedule to be unveiled at a later date. Veteran “Fox & Friends” co-host Gretchen Carlson is moving to a new daytime show from her ayem perch in early fall, while former “The View” co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck is slated to join the network’s morning program in mid-September. Veteran media reporter and CNN media critic Howard Kurtz joined Fox News Channel July 1 to host a retooled version of the weekend program known as “Fox News Watch.”

“They haven’t made as many lineup changes, so this is sort of unique,” said Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, in a recent interview. “It’s getting some attention.”

The nips and tweaks may show Fox News Channel in the process of moving forward after its 2012 election-year coverage, a period of aftermath, when ratings can ebb in comparison to viewership for coverage of much-scrutinized political events. To be sure, Fox News Channel continues to trump CNN and MSNBC handily in primetime audiences between 25 and 54 – the demographic advertisers seek from news programs. But the network did see some slackening in its first quarter in so-called “commercial ratings” – or measures of viewership for the ads that support its programs – for that demo, according to Billie Gold, vice president and director of buying and programming research at Carat, a media-buying firm that counts General Motors among its clients.

Season to date as of July 7, Fox News Channel’s primetime programming across the week lured an average of 367,000 viewers between ages 25 and 54, according to Nielsen. MSNBC’s primetime lineup drew an average of 271,000 in the 2013 time-period, while CNN attracted approximately 235,000, Nielsen said.

“Fox News gets dollars because it garners bigger ratings” and gives advertisers a chance to pitch older, upscale viewers, said Gold, who thinks the coming changes could lends its schedule “a zap of fresh hosts and shows that might bring viewers in.”

FNC may be “trying to maintain some momentum” in a post-election year, said Brian Hughes, a senior vice president and head of audience analysis at Magna Global, a media-buying firm owned by Interpublic Group. The move involving Kelly, he added, could be an attempt to “draw in some more female viewers in primetime.”

A Fox News spokeswoman said the network declined to make executives available for comment.

Fox News Channel’s primetime lineup has largely been inviolate. Bill O’Reilly has held forth at 8 p.m. since 1996 with “The O’Reilly Factor” (known as “The O’Reilly Report” in its first two years). Sean Hannity has occupied the 9 p.m. slot since 1996, sharing it with Alan Colmes until 2009. And “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren” has been in the 10 p.m. slot since 2002, though its ratings have shown signs of weakness this year. Other dayparts are also relatively sturdy. Carlson has been on the curvy couch at “Fox & Friends” since 2006.

In contrast, MSNBC recently gave Chris Hayes its daily 8 p.m. slot, relegating Ed Schultz (whose show had aired weeknights 6 to 10) to weekends. CNN runs Anderson Cooper’s program at both 8 and 10 p.m., but it has stumbled in its efforts to create a more durable three-hour block, as anyone who may have stuck with Paula Zahn, Campbell Brown and Eliot Spitzer over the years might be able to relate. CNN’s longest-lasting personality, Larry King, departed in 2010 after 15 years on the network’s air.

Fox News Channel appears to be in the midst of a larger effort. In addition to the changes scheduled for primetime and daytime, the network has in 2013 signed Tucker Carlson as co-host of “Fox & Friends Weekend”; former presidential candidates Herman Cain and Dennis Kucinich and, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to contributor roles; and, in June, announced the return of the colorful former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as a contributor as well.

Compare this spate of activity to 2012, when the only new talent hire announced during the year, according to a list of press releases posted on the network’s media site, was that of former New Yorker staffer Peter J. Boyer. He joined Fox News Channel as an editor-at-large.

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