How ‘Loyal Dog’ Sean Hannity Went From King of Fox News to Has-Been

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Oh how the mighty have fallen.
During the Trump administration, Sean Hannity was at the top of the world. With the downfall of his longtime Fox News colleague and nemesis Bill O'Reilly in April 2017 over allegations of sexual misconduct, Hannity quickly rose from second fiddle to the most-watched anchor on cable news. And he stayed there for years.
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Not only did the veteran Fox News host draw nearly four million viewers each night while he cheered for Donald Trump, but he was also widely regarded as the then President's shadow chief. When Trump wasn't on his show for an "exclusive" interview, Hannity called the president late at night and acted as an informal adviser.
But towards the end of Trump's tenure, Tucker Carlson — who essentially replaced O'Reilly in prime time — ousted Hannity as Fox News' top dog. Conservative cable viewers seemed much more interested in Carlson's brand of taking the far-right nationalism, passionate anti-immigrant rhetoric, and COVID-trutherism of Trumpism, and thus over Hannity's increasingly stale Trump-boosterism (and Hillary Clinton's insatiable obsession) to hide.
And the longer Hannity -- now the longest-running cable news host in history -- has traversed a post-Trump world, the farther down ratings peaks he's plummeted.
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"We are the envy of every other network for having to compete with ourselves after beating everything else in the cable business, but no other host in the industry has the longevity and endurance of Sean Hannity," a network spokesperson wrote. "FOX News Media is extremely proud that its number one show at 9:00 p.m. is an integral part of our primetime programming and has been a core part of our success for the past 26 years."
The late-afternoon panel show The Five, featuring popular Fox News veterans Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters, which had already risen to a solid third place in Fox News viewership in the 2020 election, eventually overtook Hannity for second in August 2021 Place. I haven't looked back since then. In fact, the culture-war-fueled gabfest even overtook Tucker Carlson Tonight as the most-watched show on all cable news. (However, Carlson's show regularly attracts more viewers in the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic.)
Following the brief slump in Fox News ratings following Trump's election defeat, the network ratcheted up its weekday offering and leaned more towards overt right-wing commentary. This resulted in booting at 19:00. Straight News host Martha MacCallum until the afternoon, replacing her hour with a nightly opinion talk show.
Finally, after a year of filling the timeslot with a rotating lineup of hosts, the network rewarded Watters with the hour last January. Known for his behind-the-scenes interviews and penchant for controversy, the former O'Reilly lackey's star has been rising fast at Fox. Like Gutfeld, who also recently started a popular weekday talk show, Watters hosted a highly rated weekend program for several years.
Jesse Watter's primetime was an instant hit with audiences at the right-wing cable giant, instantly dominating its time slot and quickly becoming one of the top five shows on cable.
By spring, the early-evening program overtook Hannity's primetime offering in terms of total audience, attracting an average of 2.92 million viewers versus Hannity's 2.89 million in April, although Hannity held a slim lead over Watters in the key demographic.
Hannity's show climbed to third place in the second quarter of the year, drawing an average of 2.73 million total viewers to Watter's 2.69 million while beating Jesse Watter's primetime viewership by nearly 50,000 in the advertising demographic. But June and July told a different story separately. Watters again surpassed Hannity in overall viewership in June while closing the gap in the 25-54 age group. The following month, Watters extended its overall audience lead by more than 100,000 viewers, closing in on Hannity at 13,000 in the key advertising demographic.
Of course, while Hannity's ratings dominance on Fox has long since ended, he continues to routinely outperform his peers on both CNN and MSNBC (especially now that Rachel Maddow is down to weekly broadcasting). In addition, Hannity's show increased total viewership compared to this time last year, up seven percent in total audience.
The continued rise of Carlson, Gutfeld, and Watters -- more "own the libs" culture warriors than card-carrying Trumpists -- while Hannity, a member of Trump's inner circle, continues to decline, cannot simply be attributed to a growing perception of the network distancing itself from Trump's cult of personality .
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Though Murdoch's own newsrooms have slammed Trump for bombastic January 6 revelations and Fox News hasn't interviewed the ex-president in months, Trump's presence still overshadows everyone else at Fox. Additionally, while less directly involved in Trumpworld, Carlson, Gutfeld and Watters continue to chime in on the ex-president's behalf, often singing his praises or churning with him at his Saudi-backed golf tournament.
Instead, the most likely explanation comes from Hannity's inability to evolve with the changing right-wing media landscape — a landscape that has long since moved into darker ideological terrain after decades of loyally defending and touting the Republican Party above all else.
“The essence of Hannity is that he is not an idea person. He's a cheerleader," explained Matthew Sheffield, a former right-wing media figure-turned-critic. Before founding Flux, an independent media company, Sheffield co-founded NewsBusters, a right-wing watchdog who is a regular on Hannity's show and throughout Fox programming. In recent years, Sheffield has become a vocal critic of the conservative media, spending much of his energies denouncing how "damaging" they have been to the American public.
“[Hannity] is not a creative person. He just wants the same guests to always be talking about the same things," he continued. "And for the angrier, more reactionary, Christian types, that's just not enough for them anymore. They want more anger, more ambition. And they certainly don't want to hear what Lindsey Graham has to say."
This analysis of Hannity's fall from the top was corroborated by Andrew Lawrence, deputy director for rapid response at liberal watchdog Media Matters for America.
"I think the formation of the Republican Party, its influence, is fading a little bit," Lawrence said. "I think they're sort of following the lead of the 'Blood and Earth' base that Tucker draws his influence from. And I think Fox News went into that to try to appeal more to that 'blood and soil' base than let the Republicans vote."
Sheffield, meanwhile, noted that presenters like Carlson, Gutfeld and Watters seem to understand better than Hannity that Fox's hardcore audience in general feels they are constantly besieged and offended - that they are outnumbered, loathed and controlled by an elite, largely liberal Population excluded are culture.
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"What Watters is giving them is that he's trying to turn it on its head and poke fun at the left. That's most of what he does," Sheffield explained. "It strikes a more emotional tone when they make snide remarks about the Democrats instead of just trotting [establishment Republican lawmakers] back out."
Lawrence similarly suggested that Watters et al. better fit with the network's current business model, which revolves around "fueling outrage cycles" and fomenting culture war controversies. Hannity, on the other hand, only seems to be making headlines for his commitment to Trump's tenure. “His controversy comes [when] it is revealed during a congressional hearing that his texts to Trump said x, y, or z,” Lawrence noted.
Another possible explanation for Hannity's decline among Fox viewership, Sheffield said, lies in its most frequent guests. While Senator Graham, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Fox News punching bag Geraldo Rivera were once regular fixtures on the network's overall programming, such guests are now viewed with general suspicion by the ideological right.
"You hate these people. And if you look at those other shows, don't bring those people with you," Sheffield claimed. "He's like a loyal dog that just keeps coming back to the house because it's the only thing he knows."
Lawrence was far more succinct in his overall assessment of Hannity's demise: "His show is just bad television at this point."
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