The secrets of success for Fox News' ensemble shows
"It's almost like a baking recipe," Andrea Tantaros assures me. "If you can get it perfect, it's delicious. But if you screw up one of the ingredients, it can be awful."
She's talking about the successful rise of Fox News' ensemble shows, The Five and Outnumbered. She recently left the former for the latter, arguably making her the on-air personality who knows the most about what makes the format work.
The Five, which features five regular panelists and airs at 5 p.m. ET, has been around since 2011, when it replaced Glenn Beck. Since launching in April 2014, Outnumbered, which airs at noon ET and features four women and one male guest (hence the title!), is up 52 percent in total viewers. In February, Outnumbered delivered its highest-rated month yet, with nearly 1.3 million viewers. That's still a fraction of what primetime heavyweights like Bill O'Reilly with 2.8 million total viewers, but it absolutely crushes the competition on MSNBC and CNN, where more traditional dayside shows are lucky to get a fraction of that.
Now, it's not as if Fox News invented the ensemble news show. Today and Good Morning America have done it forever, and on cable, ensemble shows like Morning Joe, Fox & Friends, Good Day, The Cycle, and more have become a fixture of the cable news landscape, though many of those shows still have guests, which The Five and Outnumbered don't.
But like most things Roger Ailes has attempted, he's arguably done the ensemble format better than anyone, at least as far as quantitative results go. So what makes Ailes' ensemble shows not just good, but better than the rest? The biggest secret seems to be his ability to identify characters who seem authentic to the Fox News audience — a process that sounds closer to casting for a role in a family sitcom than booking guests for political commentary. On The Five, each cast member has been said to embody a familiar (and even familial) archetype. "Someone described The Five as a family Thanksgiving dinner where they bring out the crazy uncle, and that would be me," Bob Beckel told The Hollywood Reporter. There's truth to that.
The Five "wasn't just someone a) reading the news, or b) moderating a debate between a Republican and a Democrat," Tantaros tells me. Instead, "people felt like they were a part of a conversation." Nor was it a random mishmash of pretty faces. Instead, it was a carefully selected assembly of complementary personalities. And many of the same lessons apply to Outnumbered. In both cases, chemistry is vital. "We're all friends off screen," Tantaros says of her new crew. "I threw Sandra's [Smith] baby shower."
(Photo courtesy Andrea Tantaros)
Any cable news ham-and-egger has to be envious of the opportunity to get reps with the same people every day. The far more frequent outcome is that days pass between TV "hits," and you're constantly paired with different hosts and adversaries — sometimes people you've never met in person whom you're now doing battle with via satellite.
Repetition and familiarity are "how sports teams get really good," says Tantaros. "I mean, when you play with the same team over and over and over, you know the plays. You know where someone's gonna kick the ball. You know when they're going to start to get tired. You can feel things out. That eventually happens on ensemble shows."
That's not to say there aren't challenges when a cable network commits to the ensemble format. First, of course, like any sports team (or rock band), there's a potential for acrimony. One bad fight could tear a team apart. (Looking at you, Today!) "We have a policy where, if anything is ever bothering us, Harris, Sandra, and I talk about it. We let nothing come between us," says Tantaros.
The more casual and conversational format also leads to a lot of unscripted comments — and in Fox News' case, they are hungrily seized on by the more liberal elements of online media. Tantaros in particular has become a favorite of the liberal blogosphere, which seems to unceasingly chronicle just about everything she says."I have heard from people that the liberal blogs seem to have an obsession with me," she tells me when I bring up the attacks. "The left is deeply threatened by non-traditional looking conservatives who make conservative points of view — especially women."
Unscripted moments are also a core feature of these ensemble shows because it's sometimes impossible to predict what big news story might break. This is especially true for Outnumbered, which comes on during the middle of the news day. "On another show, if breaking news happens, a booker will sort of scramble to get a guest to talk about whatever it is that's happening," Tantaros says. But in the case of Outnumbered, "The guests are already sitting on the couch ... so if something happens in the Middle East, or — God forbid, there's a beheading — or ISIS releases another beheading video, or somebody passes away — you've got to be ready to go at that moment."