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The strange trajectory of Tucker Carlson’s first 100 shows

Tucker Carlson in the most recent episode of his X show. Credit: Tucker Carlson/X

May 2, 2024 - 3:00pm

Tucker Carlson last night released the 100th episode of his show on X, his comeback project following an unceremonious departure from Fox News. The milestone episode, featuring conservative commentator Dan Ball, addressed long-standing areas of interest for Carlson, such as congressional efforts to censor Right-of-centre voices. Indeed, it felt like a throwback to his cable days — more a lament of government overreach and the erosion of free speech than his continuing turn towards eccentric content about UFOs and the legal travails of alt-Right internet personalities.

Carlson’s shift towards fringe content was arguably necessary to maintain viewer interest outside of Fox’s huge mainstream platform. By featuring controversial figures such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, manosphere advocate Andrew Tate, and “Gay Obama” truther Larry Sinclair, Carlson has banked on the sensationalism and divisiveness these guests bring to sustain high engagement levels.

When I spoke to people close to Carlson’s current and previous shows, there was a consensus that these wackier episodes have negatively impacted the credibility and broader appeal of his platform, while also overshadowing more intimate and interesting conversations he has conducted with the likes of iconoclastic golfer John Daly, disgraced former CNN journalist Chris Cuomo, UFC boss Dana White, and trucking-industry writer Gord Magill.

To that end, Carlson’s well-publicised conversation with Vladimir Putin, which was criticised even by the Russian President himself for its lack of challenging questions, highlights the diminishing journalistic rigour of his highest-profile interviews. This shift towards embracing edgier guests and subject matter indicates a deeper commitment to niche content, which risks isolating a more varied audience.

Declining viewership statistics substantiate that view. Initially, Carlson’s X episodes consistently garnered over 100 million impressions, reaching their zenith around the middle of last year. However, a precipitous drop is evident from mid-December, with episodes struggling to surpass the 50-million-view mark and most attracting 10-30 million views. Additionally, this metric, which counts views regardless of viewing duration and even includes autoplays occurring in newsfeeds, does not tell us how long or in what ways most viewers actually engaged with these episodes.

Genuine growth would come from working to broaden that declining base, not merely shoring it up. According to insiders, while the absence of a traditional corporate structure has granted Carlson increased autonomy, it has also eliminated a crucial layer of editorial oversight. These sources have noted a shift towards targeting a less discerning audience, emphasising sensationalism over substantive discourse in order to keep the attention of more credulous viewers — one insider notes a current “audience minus about 10-15 IQ points from the prime-time show” — interested in space aliens and Obama’s alleged gay trysts.

Insiders tell me that previously, at Fox News, Carlson’s show was carefully crafted as appointment viewing. His prime-time slot at 8pm was built around a tightly scripted monologue, the result of hours of preparation by his production team. This format ensured that each episode was a polished delivery of Carlson’s viewpoints, designed to capture and retain a large national audience. The goal was to take innovative Right-wing views from Twitter and present them in a format accessible to a broader, not necessarily online-savvy audience. This strategy successfully mainstreamed what were often fringe opinions, making them palatable to a larger viewership.

My sources emphasised that the corporate framework provided necessary safeguards which moderated extreme content ideas, maintaining a balance between provocative and palatable content. Along with the loss of those guardrails, Carlson has abandoned previously-held “bright-line rules”, including avoiding discussions on contentious topics such as Israel and Palestine, and maintaining a certain distance from overt political endorsements, as with his earlier refusal to “simp” for Donald Trump.

This mature phase of Carlson’s career reflects a clear departure from the influence he once wielded at Fox, where his voice not only reached millions nightly but also significantly influenced American political dialogue. At his peak, there were murmurs about his potential candidacy for high political office. Now, as he continues to curate and stream content tailored to the desires of his base, it’s evident that while he may hold a place of prominence on X for as long as he desires, his role will largely be that of a preacher to the converted.


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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A D Kent
A D Kent
21 days ago

“When I spoke to people close to Carlson’s current and previous shows, there was a consensus that these wackier episodes have negatively impacted the credibility and broader appeal of his platform…” Mandy Rice-Davies Applies to this and all the other comments from the ‘sources’ included here.

What, I wonder, is it that has maintained the ‘credibility’ of their platforms at around the none-to-very-little mark that he’s missing?

T Bone
T Bone
21 days ago

Some of this is true and other parts are wildly inaccurate. First of all, I’m getting tired of every left wing advocate complaining about “culture wars” “populism” and “divisiveness.” Have you ever listened to yourselves? Almost everything the Left says is wound up in some form of Social, Economic or Identarian Conflict Theory. Outside of the Identity stuff that’s now alienating everybody Is Abortion not a “divisive, populist culture war” issue? How about the “tax cuts for the rich” narrative? In fact, its extraordinarily hard to find left wing commentary that’s void of extreme hyperbole.

Its true that his script at Fox was tight and geared toward a more “mainstream audience.” However, he did not have “bright-line rules” about avoiding certain topics. He constantly pushed the envelope especially about Ukraine. Starting in 2020, he abandoned the idea that he couldn’t talk to certain people or cover certain topics because the ideas were “too dangerous.”

I don’t pay nearly as much attention to him as I did, probably because he doesn’t have an ordered tv time slot. Also, because I think he’s just wrong about some things…but I still appreciate that he’s covering topics that most people simply ignore.

Kyle Pelletier
Kyle Pelletier
19 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

Have you considered the possibility that some people (especially on UnHerd — do yourself a favor and think about what the “herd” is) who criticize a tribesman, whether it be Blue Tribe or Red Tribe, do so without implicitly throwing their hat in with either group? Tucker Carlson is unabashedly right-oriented. Is it impossible to criticize the right without implicitly praising the left? It shouldn’t be… because it isn’t. This entire false dichotomy of political opinion falling at some point along a simplistic left-right continuum is tired and played out.

If you have a problem with the overarching narrative of a culture war, maybe you should look at your own behavior and refrain from immediately throwing blame at your political opponents.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
18 days ago
Reply to  Kyle Pelletier

The culture war is fought by two armies, more or less. One largely believes that elites in the government, academia, and the media should control the economy and nearly all discourse.
The other largely believes in market based economies, and personal liberties tempered by self discipline.
These views are largely irreconcilable. If you believe a man remains a man no matter what surgical or hormonal interventions he ensures, that can’t be reconciled with the opposite belief. If you believe that command economies with planned outcomes lead to misery, and that adults have the right to express their own views, there isn’t much room for compromise.
If you believe in western society – free markets, free speech, constitutional democracy, the rule of law, due process, and personal property – that’s exceptionally hard to reconcile with a belief in the precepts of Antifa, or Hamas, or that the government should put its thumb on the scale for some groups, and use its enormous enforcement powers against others.
People do tire of them, but that’s why culture wars exist. As the name implies, our society is at stake.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
21 days ago

I found the Russia stuff very off putting. Not even so much the fawning Putin interview, which was pretty cringeworthy, but the walking around Moscow and noting how wonderful it is. Having said that, we should not agree with every comment or interview made by news people we follow. Megyn Kelly might be the only podcaster I listen to who I haven’t disagreed with strongly on some issue. I do think Carlson is at risk of becoming irrelevant. I never watched him on Fox, but I do subscribe to his podcast. However, I rarely listen because his guests have little appeal and I will likely unsubscribe soon. Ditto for Glen Greenwald. I have no issue with his support for Palestine, but his opposition to Israel is almost obsessive and his support for campus protestors is a juvenile understanding of free speech. After awhile, you begin to tune out.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
21 days ago

One has to wonder what other such endeavours garner for views?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
21 days ago

This is so much left-wing twaddle with a rising stink of envy and jealousy. Naturally, Carlson’s old FOX crowd is going to tut-tut and sling mud under a cloak of anonymity. The fact of the matter is the audience for his prime time spot has fallen like a rock with staffing cuts made even though successor Jesse Watters does a good job. The dismissive tone toward the numbers Carlson racks up even on a slow day are ten times as many who watched him at the height of his TV career. One of his strengths is seeking out outcast figures — always denoted as “controversial” in lazy journo-speak — consigned to Siberia by the legacy media. It is too hard to fit them in their punchy format that puts a premium on rat-tat-tat exchanges rather than Carlson’s long-form interviewing that can take over two hours. The shallow criticism of the Putin encounter was by writers under the gun to get their story out fast, one of the perils of the trade. They found boring the long tutoring Putin gave Tucker on the history of Mother Russia and its lost glories. But the glimpses of paranoia and self-pity he feels for its fall from grace were very revealing. The writer of this hatchet job might not have a scintilla of interest in UFOs and aliens, but hundreds of millions in the US alone are troubled by them. Carlson said he finds them so frightening he doesn’t want to learn any more. You could tell this was a hit job by Oliver Bateman’s throwaway line “one insider notes a current “audience minus about 10-15 IQ points from the prime-time show.” Really? So if they are stupider than other people, it goes without saying they are deplorable as well. I’d advise Unherd to be more skeptical about this writer’s work.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
21 days ago

I guess that when you go outside the Overton Window there’s a risk you’ll bash your head on the window frame.
But I thought the Putin interview was interesting. Lies or no lies, it was important for me to hear Putin’s “narrative.” And when does any head of state get asked “tough questions?”
Then Mike Benz on the US intelligence community. If as much as 43.2 percent was accurate, it is scaree.
Most recently Tucker interviewed Aleksandr Dugin — whose books are banned on Amazon. I found his narrative on individualism and liberalism challenging. And anyone with half a brain needs to address his thinking.

Arthur King
Arthur King
21 days ago

He’ll figure out what works. Give him time, he’s not going anywhere

Thomas Bartlett
Thomas Bartlett
21 days ago

A noxious, demented troll.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago

What a prissy little article this is. One would think, judging from Mr. Bateman’s style, that online journalism was little more than a episode of “Mean Girls”. Who’s hot and Who’s not. This is silly, superficial scorekeeping by someone who seems totally incapable of telling people something that they don’t already know. Puh-leeeze, let’s have less of this writer. He’s taking up space that could be used for real journalism.

Unwoke S
Unwoke S
20 days ago

The bio at the end of this sniping little hit-piece tells us that “Oliver Bateman Does the Work” and that he is “a historian and journalist”. Doing work – especially as a historian and journalist – requires a few things that are nowhere in evidence here. I used to tell my undergraduate as well as my postgraduate students that I would deduct 5% off any piece of work they submitted to me if they used phrases like “people close to”, “according to insiders”, “sources have noted”, “one insider notes”, “insiders tell me” or “my sources emphasised”, without providing citations or evidence or references. So, if this were an essay from one of my students I would have been tempted to give it around 50% for effort, but I would then have had to deduct 30% for those six offending phrases in this heap of ordure. I would have then deducted another 5% for his phrase “there was a consensus”. So, Mr Bateman, that constitutes 15% for this little effort of yours. Do some WORK, young man, if you want to be taken seriously.

Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns
20 days ago

I don’t agree with all of Tuckers views. I don’t watch all of his interviews. But the ones I do watch I am thankful for. One example in particular that I thoroughly enjoyed was the BalĂĄzs OrbĂĄn interview. I was disappointed in the President Putin interview in that I wanted more commentary about the recent history of the US Neo-Con intervention in Ukraine. Although previously not a fan of Alex Jones I learned some new things about him such as The ferocity with which the establishment went after him. All in all I remain a fan Of Tucker Carlson still watch what interests me.

Unwoke S
Unwoke S
20 days ago

Referring to “declining viewership statistics” displayed in a graph by Chris Brunet, Bateman says “a precipitous drop is evident from mid-December”. The red line provided on the graph clearly shows that that was the day Carlson launched his own network. Duh? Of course his figures on X will show a decline: millions of them had gone across to the Carlson Network! Despite his claim that “Oliver Bateman Does the Work”, he appears to have taken a day off work when he glanced at this graph.

M Coriglione
M Coriglione
19 days ago
Reply to  Unwoke S

You are absolutely delusional if you think 10s of millions of people are watching Tucker’s crappy network when only 1-2 million watched his show on cable TV.

Unwoke S
Unwoke S
15 days ago
Reply to  M Coriglione

The graph in question refers to millions of VIEWS, not millions of SUBSCRIBERS. Do the work, Batemanista!

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
18 days ago

Yes. I used to enjoy his tight polished delivery whether I ‘agreed’ with him or not. Now I no longer pay him any attention. But this is also true of other ‘alternative’ voices I once enjoyed: Galloway, Brand , Campbell etc. ExtemporĂ© becomes borĂ© very quickly.