I think it was the cake that broke me.
Roughly eight hours into my quest to watch as much programming as possible from Fox Nation, the right-wing cable network’s new streaming service, the debut episode of D-list conservative commentator David Webb’s Reality Check was interrupted when a gentleman with a magnificent beard walked onto the set unannounced and sat next to the host. It was, we learned after some baffled hemming and hawing from Webb, the executive pastry chef and sometime Food Network competitor Robert Teddy. Apparently scheduled to talk to the host about a charity that sends pastries to the troops, he had instead shown up with a cake shaped like a hot air balloon featuring a miniature model of Webb himself as a passenger, which was soon plopped on the table.
“You’ve thrown me all off here -- I’ve got my papers here everywhere,” Webb said, waving his pages of notes and desperately trying to transition to the next segment of a show that had quickly gone off the rails.
Fox Nation’s first day was a shit show. The execution was terrible, with shows frequently failing to load on the website, mishaps on the set, and a collection of on-air talent that is in no way ready for prime time (which is, perhaps, why their shows are running online in the first place).
But what Fox seems to be building -- shorn of the cable network’s pretenses of journalism, out of sight of mainstream audiences, and without fear of advertiser boycotts since the service currently features no commercials -- is a safe space to try out commentators and ideas that might otherwise be shunned. Fox is charging $5.99 a month for access to the service, and its executives clearly think that the audience wants angry far-right opinion programming.
Take Tomi Lahren, the former host on One America News Network and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze whom Fox has made the face of Fox Nation. Her Tuesday shows bookending the streaming service’s live programming were rants unhinged even by Fox News’ standards. She began the day by denouncing the “invasion” by migrants attempting to seek asylum in the U.S. and mocking the “ungrateful” people because “apparently tortillas and refried beans aren't good enough for these so-called asylum seekers, imagine that.” She also said, “Here’s some advice: If you don’t want to be tear-gassed when you rush the border, don’t rush the border.” Lahren ended the day by denouncing singer Barbra Streisand for her recent comments about the 2016 election, shouting through a litany of reasons she had supported Trump, arguing that “President Trump isn’t assaulting democracy or institutions; he’s saving them from the socialist utopia people like you dream of” … and attacking Streisand’s dog.
Throughout the day, Fox Nation’s commentators pushed this sort of virulent commentary, hitting all the usual sweet spots for Fox viewers -- denunciations of immigrants, Democrats, college students, and the media, and hosannas for Trump -- with little indication that the service is trying to put in place any sort of guardrails. The sorts of factors that typically cause the network to at least pretend to hit the brakes -- unnerved staffers from the network’s “news” side and advertisers wary of being tarred with the network’s bigotry -- don’t really apply.
Beyond political red meat, Fox Nation provides a home for the soft-focus passion projects of Fox News’ higher-profile personalities: Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy has a cooking show, his co-host Brian Kilmeade travels the country visiting sites relevant to the nation’s history on What Made America Great, The Five’s Dana Perino hosts an interview series featuring prominent authors, and Rachel Campos Duffy has a show about motherhood.
The service pads out the original offerings with a large assortment of old Fox News specials that have aired over the years, which fall neatly within the ideological contours of the network’s hosts and audience. If you have an urgent need to re-watch Fox News host Bret Baier’s 2006 hagiography of Bush administration Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, his 2014 documentary purportedly showing the “smoking gun of Benghazi,” or his 2015 look at “The Tangled Clinton Web,” you can call them up on demand. You also have access to 95 episodes of National Rifle Association President Oliver North’s Fox show War Stories.
In its initial offerings, Fox Nation is leaning heavily on its close ties to the Trump administration and family. One of the service’s premiere shows is The First Family: Donald J. Trump, which promises an “exclusive look” at how the president’s children are “balancing their own home lives, yet also dealing with the spotlight of their father being the President of the United States.” The first episode features Fox Business host and Trump cheerleader Maria Bartiromo’s softball interview with Eric Trump and footage of him at home with his wife, son, and dog, at the Trump Organization headquarters in New York City and at the Trump Winery in Charlottesville, VA. Likewise, Kilmeade’s show features him getting a tour of the Naval Observatory with Vice President Mike Pence’s wife Karen and climbing Mount Rushmore with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
There are a few flaws in the Fox Nation plan thus far, beyond the shoddy production values.
The talent level of the service’s newly branded hosts may prove a problem. Fox founder Roger Ailes was a monster who created a propaganda machine that has been terrible for the country. But he was also a shrewd judge of talent. In his absence, Fox appears to be throwing stuff at the wall to see what will stick, lifting up people like Lahren -- a grifting Trump sycophant with no real principles whose first Fox Nation offerings suggest that she recently discovered sarcasm and air quotes. Fox is rounding out the service’s programming by giving shows to decidedly third-tier talents like Webb and Todd Starnes.
Then again, Fox News has managed to retain viewers while rather drastically shifting its lineup since Ailes’ 2016 downfall, suggesting that perhaps the audience is willing to sit through whatever right-wing commentator the network serves up.
There’s also a question of who the service is for. Fox is billing it as a product for the network’s “superfans,” the “folks who watch Fox News every night for hours at a time, the dedicated audience that really wants more of what we have to offer,” as Fox executive John Finley told The New York Times in February.
But Fox News is a 24/7 news network, and its superfans also have access to the network’s B team on Fox Business, so when are they supposed to be tuning in to Fox Nation? The network’s schedule gives a strong hint -- daily streaming shows are almost entirely running during daytime hours, when the network is purportedly devoted to “news” programming as opposed to its morning and evening “opinion” shows. The bet is presumably that there's an audience that would watch C-team opinion programming or old Fox documentaries but isn’t interested in the network's news hours -- and the risk is that Fox Nation ends up cannibalizing Fox News’ daytime ratings.
The truth, of course, may be more cynical than that. Maybe, given the advanced age of the network’s typical viewer, the audience for Fox Nation is actually people who have trouble unsubscribing after signing up for services. Perhaps the hope is if the network promotes this schlock enough on Fox News, enough of its fans will sign up and then forget that they did so, making it a lucrative revenue stream, even if its audience is low.
Either way, here’s what that audience is getting, based on the 10 hours or so I spent pursuing the programming on Tuesday:
Rob Schmitt and Carley Shimkus do brief intros for segments from Fox News’ prime-time programs -- one each for Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, and The Ingraham Angle. Think of it as the worst possible version of the Academy Awards, complete with one host finishing the other’s sentences.
The First Family: Donald J. Trump
I was ready for a Bartiromo interview with Eric Trump to feature questions like “Tell me about, like, growing up with this bigger-than-life father” (answer: “He’s so unconventional, but also incredible”) and “Who’s your mentor?” (“My father”). I wasn’t expecting the show to turn into an extensive infomercial for the Trump Winery and the adjacent hotel in Virginia (according to Trump, “the Mar-a-Lago of the South,” which is strange since Virginia is north of Florida), complete with a tour of the Jefferson Suite. What an incredible grift.
Fox Nation Patriot’s Almanac
“This day in U.S. history” as presented by Fox’s Bill Bennett, who served in President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Tuesday’s offering was about the U.S. Senate voting to confirm Gerald Ford as vice president. The segment did touch on President Richard Nixon’s subsequent resignation, though curiously did not discuss the reason behind it.
Fox & Friends After the Show Show
This program airs immediately after Fox & Friends, apparently with a cast wholly unprepared to host the show. Tuesday’s version included Janice Dean discussing her neck pain, Steve Doocy mixing up the names of two members of the crew, and Jillian Mele declaring, “Fox Nation, I swear we’re better than this.” They are not.
The Liberty File
This is a mini-cable news program featuring Fox’s Andrew Napolitano interviewing former independent counsel Kenneth Starr and then doing a “news I like and news I hate” lightning round. This was by far the most professionally done program on Fox Nation. Who knows how long it will last, though -- the “news I like and news I hate” segment included the sole criticisms of Trump I saw, with Napolitano denouncing Trump’s recent comments about special counsel Robert Mueller, General Motors, and the need for a state TV network.
What Made America Great
Brian Kilmeade is traveling the country visiting historic sites. One episode featured his visit to President Andrew Jackson’s Nashville, TN, home, The Hermitage. In the second, he visited Mount Rushmore, climbing to the top with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Kilmeade had no questions for the interior secretary about the series of scandals he’s overseen, but he did give Zinke the opportunity to declare that “the president is a builder; it’s time to rebuild our parks.” In the third episode, Kilmeade received from Karen Pence what he called “a tour of One Observatory Circle that no member of an administration has ever given before.” As he played fetch with the Pences’ dog, he declared, “Not only is your husband a really good legislator, a great politician, and the second most powerful person in the country -- he also can train a great dog.”
In the first episode, four people who agree with each other talked about whether American college students can “still exercise free speech and free minds.” These people were: The Wall Street Journal editorial page’s James Freeman (who is also the host), his colleague at the Journal Jillian Melchior, CampusReform.org Editor-in-Chief Lawrence Jones, and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz. The segment began with Freeman warning his viewers that “Deep Dive is not a safe space and ... microaggressions against the dominant campus culture will be not only tolerated, but even encouraged.” Somehow, it got worse from there.
My Take w/ Stuart Varney
Somehow, Fox Business’ Stuart Varney also arranged to do his Fox Nation show about how “free speech is being silenced” and also booked a CampusReform.org staffer to discuss it with him. Varney broke new ground in stopping the interview to complain that some of his own staffers had suggested it might be inappropriate to use the word kowtow, adding, “Can you imagine this? You can’t even -- you have to think about using the word” -- and here he attempted a Chinese accent -- “do the kowtow.”
Halftime Report w/ Chris Stirewalt
Fox News Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt and producer Brianna McClelland sit in front of his desk and discuss which stories will run in Stirewalt’s daily newsletter. This is exactly as boring as it sounds.
Dana Perino’s Book Club
Dana Perino’s second episode features Joseph Ellis, the eminent historian of the founding fathers who won a National Book Award for American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and a Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
The first episode features Fox colleague Greg Gutfeld, whose books include The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage.
Reality Check with David Webb
This is a pretty traditional cable news-style show, with an opening monologue and guests. Webb also managed to book an actual congressman, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), who offered this rambling promise: “You and I are on the same page. We’re going to come after it, we’re going to be strong, we’re going to stay together, and we’re going to prove to America that in 2020, we’re coming back into power and we’re going to continue to make America great again every single way.”
In another traditional cable news-style show, Fox Radio host and noted bigot Todd Starnes is extremely angry that “an invading army of illegal aliens tried to storm our border,” which he termed “an act of war” in which border patrol agents “were forced to use tear gas and defend themselves and the American people from hundreds of invaders.” In case you weren’t clear that Starnes is a bigot, later in his opening monologue, Starnes vigorously name-checks “Barack Hussein Obama, BH Obama.” Starnes also slams the press as “the state-run media and ... the propaganda arm of the Democrats” -- during an interview with Mike Huckabee, a Fox commentator whose daughter is Trump’s press secretary. There’s also a “Heartland Headlines” segment featuring culture war controversies from around the country, like a school administrator who had recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, that Starnes yells about.
The Quiz Show
Stand-up comedian and Fox contributor Tom Shillue has a show in which he quizzes people. This happened: