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Victory Lap for Fox and Hannity

New York Times Article By BRIAN STELTER

ATLANTA — When the Fox News host Sean Hannity arrived at Centennial Olympic Park here on Thursday night, some of the hundreds of fans who had been waiting for him since sunset rushed to the rope line for handshakes and autographs. He obliged, then bounded onto a temporary stage two blocks from the CNN Center and asked them mischievously, “Do you think it’s any coincidence that the CNN logo is in the background?”

Knowing the crowd would get a kick out of it, one of Mr. Hannity’s guests, the Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, chimed in. “That’s gonna get them their biggest rating of the night.”

Mr. Hannity had come to Atlanta not to stick it to CNN — though that proved to be fun, too — but to take note of a remarkable anniversary in the city where he was plucked by Roger Ailes out of relative obscurity 15 years ago, when the Fox News Channel was born.

Few thought Fox could unseat CNN, then the country’s dominant cable news channel, but it did, upending the television news business in the United States and providing conservative politicos a powerful megaphone.

Now, Fox is the envy of the media industry for its popularity, and perhaps too for its consistency — something that Mr. Hannity embodies, as the only host on the channel to have the same time slot, 9 p.m., for all 15 years.

Fox’s popularity — it’s the No. 4 cable channel in prime time this year, according to the Nielsen Company — has allowed it to gradually raise its advertising prices and its carriage fees and become one of the News Corporation’s biggest profit centers. The company will soon be going back to distributors to renew its carriage deals, most likely for far more than the roughly $1 per subscriber that the channel earns now. Fox had suggested it should be in the same league as ESPN, which costs about $4 per subscriber. Distributors know that some subscribers feel they can’t live without hosts like Mr. Hannity and his all-important lead-in, Bill O’Reilly.

Mr. Hannity, 49, who calls himself a Reagan conservative, has taken to heart the former president’s famous speech about displaying “bold colors” instead of “pale pastels.” He rarely if ever wavers from his views and campaigns relentlessly against President Obama.

“With all of the most successful cable news shows, you know what you are getting every night — they have a clear identity and mission,” said Dan Abrams, a former general manager of MSNBC and a former 9 p.m. host there. “There is probably no host on cable whose identity and mission is clearer than Sean Hannity’s.”

Viewers have rewarded that clarity. “Hannity” had an average of 2.1 million viewers in the first nine months of the year, 528,000 of whom were in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic that advertisers covet — a subgroup that numbered as many as CNN and MSNBC had put together.

“Our viewers are loyal to us, and we’re loyal to them,” said John Finley, Mr. Hannity’s executive producer, who is a symbol of behind-the-scenes stability, having worked on the show for 12 years. The open-to-the-public show in Atlanta, he said, was a way to thank viewers, part of Fox’s 15th anniversary tour across the country.

At a staff party last month Mr. Ailes, then as now the chief executive and chairman of Fox News, pointed out that its prime-time lineup had changed just “a few times” in 15 years while the other cable news channels “have collectively changed it 63 times.”

Like Mr. Hannity, Mr. O’Reilly is a Fox original, having started as the 6 p.m. host and having stayed put at 8 p.m. since 1998. The third prime-time host, Greta Van Susteren, has had the 10 p.m. spot since 2002.

“Shows, stars, I mean it’s sad, you know?” Mr. Ailes said of the competition, as if looking in the rearview mirror. “I called and asked them all to move to the second floor wherever they were working. Because when they jump, I don’t want it to hurt.”

Mr. Ailes and Mr. Hannity share many of the same conservative core values, like a belief in American exceptionalism and an aggressive counterterrorism stance. Both have written off Mr. Obama as a socialist. Warming up his crowd on Thursday, Mr. Hannity asked, “How many of you are voting for Barack Obama? Anybody?” When one man said yes, Mr. Hannity tried to toss him a football, an on-camera trademark.

“This is more than Barack Obama’s given you,” Mr. Hannity exclaimed. Later, during the 9 p.m. broadcast, the radio host Neal Boortz called Mr. Obama “a bigger disaster to this country than 9/11,” prompting condemnations by liberal critics the next day. (There is one or more liberal guest each evening, though outnumbered by conservatives.)

Despite the inflammatory rhetoric he instigates, Mr. Hannity is good-natured and humble in person, as interested in his children’s tennis matches as in Mitt Romney’s foreign policy positions. He rarely agrees to interviews, and when he did last week, he said he did not read negative articles about him, or even the friendly Twitter account all about his abundant head of hair. (A Fox hairdresser keeps tabs on the hair account for him.)

The son of a World War II veteran, Mr. Hannity delivered newspapers as a boy on Long Island, stirred controversy as a college radio broadcaster and then made his way to Atlanta radio in the early 1990s. He had been a guest on television, but not a host, when Mr. Ailes brought him to New York. “He saw something that I didn’t even think I knew I had,” Mr. Hannity recalled in an interview. “And he gave me the room to grow.”

The resulting show started on the same day as the Fox News Channel, Oct. 7, 1996, as “Hannity & Colmes,” with the mild-mannered liberal Alan Colmes cast as Mr. Hannity’s sparring partner. The debate fest began to routinely top CNN’s “Larry King Live” in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, mirroring the rest of Fox’s ratings gains. About the same time, Mr. Hannity started a nationally syndicated radio show, capitalizing on his Fox fame. It is now No. 2 on radio, behind only Rush Limbaugh.

Mr. Hannity said he thought his “principled consistency” appealed to both listeners and viewers. In the park on Thursday night, Mr. Finley put it another way. “He has a good barometer for what the audience wants and what they expect,” he said, helped by radio listener calls.

After Mr. Obama’s election, Mr. Colmes left the 9 p.m. hour on Fox and it became Mr. Hannity’s alone, visibly moving the prime-time lineup further to the right. Mr. Hannity acknowledged that Mr. Obama might be perceived as good for his business, but quickly said, “What’s good for the country is more important than what’s good for Sean Hannity.”

Mr. Hannity’s hour has become something of a safe harbor for Republican challengers this year; one fan in the crowd Thursday, Aaron Johns, said he sensed that “when they’re on ‘Hannity,’ they’re more open” because “they’re not going to get tricked.” Still, Mr. Hannity recounted having to call Rick Perry “at least seven or eight times” to book him last month. “You’re killing me,” he said he told Mr. Perry. “The audience wants to see you. You gotta come on.”

After the show Mr. Hannity told fans that he had no favorite in the Republican field, but that each would be better than Mr. Obama.

Like Mr. O’Reilly’s and Ms. Van Susteren’s, his contract runs through the next election.

“I serve at the pleasure of the president of the company,” he said, referring to Mr. Ailes, whose contract runs through 2013. “If he leaves, I might leave.”

Replacing the three hosts will someday weigh heavily on the minds of Fox executives, though Bill Shine, an executive vice president, said it was not a current concern. In an interview, he contrasted his team with his competitors: “Their biggest failing,” he said, “is that they haven’t been able to find good talent.”







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