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When Fox News announced in January that in-house personalities would try out for a new 7 pm opinion show known now as Fox News Primetime, Jesse Watters was one of the few names I listed as a logical candidate. And just last week, Watters hosted the program for the first time.
Between June 28 and July 2, Watters averaged 1.78 million as host of FNP (the show averaged 1.56 million overall in the second quarter of 2021). Not only did Watters draw higher average viewership, but with him as host, FNP topped its lead-in, Special Report, all five days in the coveted 25-54 demographic.
TV ratings are not usually cut and dry. That is particularly true of a show with numerous rotating hosts. However, after just one week, viewers made it clear they’d watch a daily 7 pm show with Jesse Watters.
Watters made sense from the start for the same reasons he succeeded last week. In the list of characteristics that make cable news hosts pop, Watters checks nearly every box. Watters is a talented, confident, and occasionally aggravating (he’d probably admit it) broadcaster.
Fox News viewers also know who Jesse Watters is, and recognition is an underrated and invaluable factor in viewership.
Though it’s a hard concept for me and others in the media industry to grasp, the average viewer is simply not immersed in network programming. The average viewer knows the top stars — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Jake Tapper, and Chris Cuomo — and the hosts of their most frequently viewed shows. And like Brian Kilmeade, Watters was already familiar to the audience as soon as he opened the show. They didn’t feel like they had to get to know someone new. They already knew him.
Watters first made a name for himself with his regular appearances on The O’Reilly Factor. Bill O’Reilly once dominated the cable news space just as Tucker Carlson does now. The Factor introduced Watters to millions of daily TV viewers.
Since then, Watters has moved to The Five, on which he is one of three daily co-hosts. The Five is one of the three or four most-viewed shows in cable news. That’s a lot of daily eyeballs.
Does that make Watters the best candidate for FNP? Maybe. He’s right up there on my list with a few others. But as always, there’s more to the discussion than just audience recognition.
Fox News now has to decide whether Watters has a stronger case to take the job than Brian Kilmeade, whose case has been solid from the start. The network could also decide that a personality who garnered lower ratings during his or her tryout weeks could become a star if named and promoted as the permanent host. That’s a reasonable assumption to make.
Another pressing matter for Fox News is what to do with The Five if Watters moves to 7 pm. Last week, Watters hosted both the 7 pm show and The Five on four of the five days. Will Cain filled in for Watters the one day he missed.
Watters could, in theory, host both shows five days a week. His co-hosts, Greg Gutfeld and Dana Perino, both host The Five and another daily show. Yet Gutfeld’s show airs six hours after The Five at 11 pm ET (though it’s taped earlier), and Perino co-hosts America Newsroom at 9 am. Should Watters move to 7 pm, he has a chance to make the 7 pm program one of the network’s leading shows, and having him available just two hours before, hosting from 5 to 6 then 7 to 8, might limit the novelty and excitement associated with his 7 pm appearance.
Moving Watters could also be a good opportunity for Fox News. The Five helped build Watters into a TV draw. If Watters were to move on from The Five, Fox then has an opportunity to build another star in his place. With Donald Trump out of the White House and the emergence of independent podcasts and digital shows, all TV networks need to build more stars. Fox News could elevate Watters’ status and build a different, new star at the same time.
Pete Hegseth and Will Cain would be the best candidates to replace Watters on The Five. Hegseth and Cain have both filled in for Watters over the past year. On Friday, The Five, which Cain co-hosted, was the second most-watched show in cable news.
The other question to consider is does Watters even want to move? He has a good gig with The Five now, and he hosts a weekly Saturday show at 8 pm that rates well.
Answers can be good, but questions are better. I have a lot of questions about this situation, and Jesse Watters’ case last week just added even more.