Sean Hannity finds himself in familiar territory as of late: second place.
For most of his career, the right-wing Fox propagandist has been in the shadows of someone else.
When Bill O’Reilly was still at Fox News, Hannity could never quite catch him in the ratings race.
But shortly after the 2016 election, Hannity’s close relationship with then-President Donald Trump, coupled with O’Reilly’s ouster at Fox, propelled Hannity to the throne of conservative media. And for a few years, he sat there comfortably.
Hannity hasn’t been able to hold onto the crown, though. Recent ratings numbers and other data show that his influence has been surpassed by one of his colleagues: Tucker Carlson.
Carlson — by fanning the flames of coronavirus trutherism and leaning into the anti-immigrant, populist movement that ushered Trump into the White House — now outrates Hannity handily and has proven to be far more effective at driving the national conversation.
Carlson’s rise and Hannity’s stumble reflect not only the current state of the conservative media, but also offer insight into the current state of the Republican Party.
“Sean Hannity doesn’t have any ideas. He’s not a thinker. He’s a propagandist,” said Matthew Sheffield, the editor of Flux who worked in conservative media for more than a decade, including co-founding the right-wing media criticism site Newsbusters, but has since emerged as a disenchanted opponent of his old industry.
Sheffield noted that Hannity is a pundit who is at his best when he’s promoting the Republican Party. But, with the GOP in disarray, he’s searching for a new narrative -— and that’s created an opening for Carlson.
“Tucker Carlson at least has some ideas … he’s at least willing to reinterpret the world,” Sheffield added. “Grassroots voters have no intellectual guidance and Tucker is de facto assuming that role.”
A Fox spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
What the data says
Throughout the Trump presidency, Hannity was unquestionably king of conservative media — and his ratings proved it.
Carlson took over the 8:00 p.m. time slot on Fox in the spring of 2017. He ran a consistent second to Hannity in total viewers, though, up until around the November election.
But a noticeable shift in conservative media occurred with Trump’s downfall.
Hannity, who had tied his relevance to the now-former President, started losing to Carlson in the ratings by sizable margins.
In the fourth quarter of 2020, coinciding with Trump losing the election, Hannity averaged 4.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, a firm that measures television audiences. Carlson averaged 4.7 million.
And in the first quarter of 2021, while Fox as a whole saw a drop in ratings as Trump encouraged his disappointed followers to abandon the channel, Hannity averaged 2.9 million viewers compared to Carlson’s 3.4 million.
Data from Google Trends and IQ Media, which measures mentions in the press, also indicates that more people are interested in Carlson, and that he is simply more talked about than Hannity.
From May 1, 2020, to May 1, 2021, Carlson easily outranked Hannity in Google search trends. A breakdown by region showed that, in every state, more people searched for Carlson’s name than Hannity’s.
Compare that with how the two fared against each other in the first year of Carlson’s show. During the period from May 1, 2017, to May 1, 2018, Hannity came out on top, with more searches for information about him than for Carlson in every state but Idaho.
IQ Media data paints a similar picture. Since the November election, Hannity has trended downward in press mentions while Carlson’s trajectory has been trending north.
According to IQ Media, from November 1, 2020, to April 28, 2021, Carlson was mentioned in the online press 39,481 times. Hannity was mentioned by comparison 29,877 times.
Much of the news coverage hasn’t been positive. Carlson has largely made headlines through the outrageous commentary he delivers on his show. During this particular period, Carlson cast doubt on the safety of vaccines, mocked women in the US military, and promoted the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory. But in a media space defined more by whether someone gets a rise out of the left than by their reporting or ideas, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Carlson’s ratings.
Hannity, by comparison, has declined to chase Carlson as far into the fringes of right-wing politics. He was happy to promote conspiracy theories and push disinformation in support of Trump, but has appeared unwilling to dabble in vaccine trutherism and the blatant white grievance politics that has made Carlson so popular.
None of this is to say that Hannity no longer wields influence. His Fox show is still one of the most-watched on cable and he commands a large talk-radio audience. He has also had more staying power than just about anyone in conservative media. But his dominance in the industry — at least for now — has unquestionably slipped.
“Trump is no longer there to echo and cheerlead”
Trump’s defeat in the November election and subsequent departure from office significantly impacted conservative media.
In losing Trump, the industry lost the figurehead that it parroted and championed for years, making the job more difficult for propagandists like Hannity who have largely failed to find a way to portray President Joe Biden as a villain.
“Sean Hannity has always been a successful party guy, pushing the party line,” said Amanda Carpenter, a conservative writer and CNN commentator as well as former director of communications for Sen. Ted Cruz. “But what Tucker is doing is navigating the post-Trump landscape and selling this new nationalistic-style populist view. I think a lot of people look at him for guidance.”
“Trump is no longer there to echo and cheerlead,” added Carpenter. “It takes a different level of creative talent and skill to forge a new narrative, whether you agree with it or not.”
Sheffield agreed, pointing out that Carlson “came to television a lot later than Hannity in his career” and is not as willing to carry the Republican Party’s water. Instead, he resembles a newer version of the conservative commentator that takes after the alt-right rather than Reagan conservatism.
Sheffield argued that Carlson believes he’s the figurehead of that form of conservatism.
“He sees himself as leading a movement,” Sheffield said, adding: “Tucker has realized that the whole market, fundamentalism of the Reagan years, that doesn’t work anymore.”
Regardless of what it is, people who know Hannity believe that he probably isn’t too thrilled about living life in second place again.
“Hannity is a competitive guy,” said one of those people. “There’s no way he’s happy.”