Fox flirts with a new formula for the Trump and post-Roger Ailes era

When Fox News announced in April that longtime co-host of "The Five" Eric Bolling would be getting his own show instead of moving to 9 p.m. with his fellow castmembers, The Washington Post predicted the move would be a boost for President Donald Trump.

Since Trump's emergence as a candidate in 2015, Bolling has been one of the president's highest-profile supporters on a network where Trump's unorthodox ideology has turned off many conservative analysts and pundits.

But over a month into the new show "The Fox News Specialists," it seems less clear whether the show will be the pro-Trump echo chamber the Post predicted.

From a programming perspective, the immediate impact of Fox star Bill O'Reilly's departure in April amid sexual harassment allegations was a huge shakeup of the daytime and primetime lineups at the right-leaning news network, which has long enjoyed ratings dominance in the evening and afternoon hours.

And while Bolling's seat at the center of the table in the 5 p.m. hour will remain friendly territory for Trump supporters — he serves as the show's veteran host, promoting a version of Trump's anti-regulatory, anti-mainstream media message with less conspiratorial or smarmy notes than fellow Trump defenders in primetime — co-hosts Eboni Williams and Kat Timpf have added a slight wrinkle to the formula by scrutinizing and questioning dogmatically pro-Trump guests and Bolling himself.

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"This is not a show to be an advocacy for the administration, but this is not a show to bash our president," Williams said in an interview with Business Insider. "This is a show to go layer by layer, issue by issue and have an actual dialogue."

The show's format is a closer resemblance to the midday Fox program "Outnumbered" than "The Five," featuring a stable of the three centrist and right-leaning Fox co-hosts, as well as a rotating stable of guests with mixed, but generally conservative-leaning, political viewpoints.

Timpf, a libertarian, has pushed back and flustered pro-Trump guests who've floated jingoistic calls for intervention in the Middle East, as well as those who have attempted to give Trump a pass for factual inaccuracies.

During an interview this month with Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, Timpf repeatedly pressed the guest during his attempts to dismiss Trump's mistaken labeling of a robbery in the Philippines as a terrorist attack.

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"So you're saying that he deserves no blame whatsoever in terms of people saying he can't be trusted to report accurately on terror when he hasn't reported accurately on terror as recently as a week ago?" she asked. "Answer my question."

Williams, a defense attorney turned legal analyst who said she's been called everything from a "faux-liberal to a lib-tard," has served as an independent-minded legal expert on the show, balancing her criticisms of the left's political decorum with legal analyses that can cut against the administration's narrative.

In a recent interview, she refused to let former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski shout over the panelists after he attempted to dodge questions about former FBI Director James Comey's desire for a special prosecutor in the probe into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

"No, no, no," Williams said when Lewandowski attempted to talk over her, quoting Comey's recent Senate testimony verbatim. "I'm just telling you exactly what Comey said."

"He's a liar," Lewandowski interjected.

"So Corey, James Comey is a liar when it hurts Trump, but he's not a liar when it helps Trump?" Timpf asked. "Is that the standard you use to decide?"

While dedicated Fox viewers may have been familiar with Williams and Timpf — Timpf is a weekend staple on the network and was a regular on the Saturday night Greg Gutfeld show, while Williams has appeared on a number of Fox shows in a capacity that Yahoo described as "too smart for whatever Fox News panel she's on" — the two represent a generational leap for Fox. Both hosts are 28 years old, some of the youngest stars on the network.

"Anybody that paid attention saw Kat and I ascending pretty fast on this network for a while now," Williams said in an interview with Business Insider. "And I think that speaks for itself. We didn't really come out of nowhere."

The decision to bring in a relatively young new roster of rising stars has come as the network has sought to regroup from a tumultuous past year that has seen the departure of now deceased Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and the network's top star, O'Reilly, amid sexual harassment allegations, as well as a reshuffling of the primetime lineup with Megyn Kelly's jump to NBC News. The tumult has taken a toll on company morale.

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Vanity Fair reported earlier this month that some of the network's top leaders appeared to be split about which direction to take the company in the post-Ailes world — a mandate to stay the course, or a rebrand for the next generation of right-leaning viewers.

And while "Specialists" may be Fox's attempt at partially bridging that divide, the turbulence at the company remains a sensitive topic.

Asked about whether they witnessed or experienced harassment themselves, the hosts were largely mum, paying their respect to the network and saying that they were looking forward.

"I hate talking about it," Timpf said, noting that she enjoyed her work at the network.

Williams said she "won't even begin to speculate" about the current lawsuits, but didn't take the view that recent harassment suits reflected a cultural problem at Fox News.

"Any time you're in any work environment and you see opportunity for improvement, that's been my position here and anywhere I've worked," Williams said. "And I remain very optimistic and proud to say I've witnessed improvement and I look forward to seeing even more."

For his part, Bolling insists that the worst of the turbulence is over.

The host signed a multi-year contract last week, signaling his intention to remain a prominent veteran at the network at a time when there are significantly fewer than just a year ago.

"I was asked by Mr. Murdoch and he said 'We want you to stay at 5 o'clock and see if we can retain that audience that you guys have built for six years,'" Bolling said, describing a recent meeting with interim Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch. "That was what I was told, and that's what I'm here to do."

"If I didn't have confidence in Fox, there's no way I would've done that," Bolling continued. "I have a lot of friends in different places and different networks who would probably like to have a 12-year veteran anchor. And I sat down and had a discussion and said 'This is where I want to be,' and they said 'We want you here to and go out and make the five o'clock show a winner again' and that's what we're going to do."

It remains to be seen whether the format will work for the network, though the 5 p.m. audience seems to have remained for the new show.

While on a good day the show pulls in strong guests like billionaire Mark Cuban and Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway, on other days the specialists are fewer. A recent panel on Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, for example, lacked a panelist with a critical view of the decision or a scientific background.

Still, while soft ratings are reportedly a source of worry for some shows, if ratings grow, the show could prove a worthy successor to "The Five," which — although not without its own controversies — helped Fox win the difficult 5 p.m. hour.

The Specialists debuted in its first month at 1.8 million viewers overall, slightly below the May 2016 ratings for "The Five," though cable news viewership since the election has broken records and remained significantly higher compared to previous years.

The hosts believe that with more time, the show will find its groove.

"It takes time, that's how TV works," Timpf said. "Not even TV — that's how being a human around other humans worked."

"This is a new start," Bolling said. "We have a new show, a new start, a fresh start. And we're in a good place."

Describing his 5 p.m. competitors moments later, he added: "I feel bad for poor Wolf [Blitzer] and Chuck Todd."

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