I spoke to Williams by phone in March 2020, days after the coronavirus lockdown, as he and his colleagues had just been sent home from the studio to overcome a pandemic of unknown duration. I had been following the hit of “The Five,” one of Fox News’ constant audience hits, and wanted to know what it was like to be the show’s only liberal voice. Williams recalled the day, years earlier, when he was summoned to a conversation with then-Fox mastermind Roger Ailes, who described an idea he developed for the difficult time slot. 5 pm crack. It was inspired, Ailes told Williams, by part of his career in the early 1970s, when he produced a pair of Broadway shows. He wanted to start a show with five basic characters, including a “leader” guy with a strong, conservative voice; a pretty woman; and what Ailes described as a “Falstaff-type” figure who would serve as a contrarian. Unlike traditional information boards, where different voices clashed to make brief political points, “it was more like… a family conversation,” Williams told me, “and the idea was, I guess. , that you would like to get caught up with these characters.
Fox was not the first channel to discover that political conflict can create listening addiction. The public television roundtable “The McLaughlin Group”, which fueled disagreements, began in the 1980s; CNN’s “Crossfire” was so determined to cause division that Jon Stewart claimed the show was “harming America.” Most of the energy of ABC’s popular “The View” is based on the “Hot Topics” segment, where five mostly liberal women rehash the news with a nominated curator – a spot currently held by Meghan McCain – and tensions are often high.
Even among these shows, “The Five” stands out with a rigid structure, an underlying sense of humor, and a calculated mix of serious subject matter and light fluff. Cheesy jokes, animal snippets, talks about hosts’ personal lives, and rapid subject changes all turn the heat down. (“Our producers are really good at what they do, so they don’t do a show where we’re going to yell at each other for 60 minutes,” co-host Dana Perino told me in an interview last year. .) Especially over the past five years, when political divisions really tear some families apart, the show has become the proxy for a scenario many of us have been trying to avoid: sitting at a table with parents. in war, speak out in an uncomfortable cry match in which someone decided to throw food on the table, then wipe the potatoes and gravy off the wall and come back to the table the next night.
Williams, who had been a rotating panelist, took over the show’s liberal niche full-time in 2017, after Bob Beckel, an original co-host, was fired by the network for a racist comment he made. done live. And Williams understood that being a main actor in a mashed potato fight requires a certain serenity, and also a strategy. To prepare for the show every day, he told me, he familiarized himself with the right-wing press, from Drudge to Breitbart to the National review, “just to know where those voices are, because that will give me a strong clue as to where the curators of ‘The Five’ come from.” And he tried to be deliberate about how he made his points when his turn came. A contrarian statement “acts as an accelerator, so it energizes the debate,” he told me. But “it can’t be something that gets dismissed out of hand or put aside… You don’t want to stop the conversation. You want to keep the conversation going.
Williams’ comments were treated with anything from gentle tolerance to outright disdain, and periodically the pushes got so strong that they made headlines themselves. In February 2019, co-host Greg Gutfeld yelled at Williams for saying he and co-host Jesse Watters were “in the bunker” for Trump; in September 2019, Gutfeld blew up after Williams accused him of peddling GOP talking points. Last March, Tucker Carlson, as a panelist, blatantly mocked Williams in a rant about the GOP and the deficit; Williams behaved as he often did in such situations, continuing to speak until he had completed his point, even though Carlson was yelling at him. In general, Williams claimed a zen approach to a scenario that would leave a lot of people curled up in a ball. “We do this every day,” he told me. “Sometimes the things that are said are like, they sting, and other times, they cut… Most of the time it doesn’t stay in the air, so there’s hardly any comment. about it during the break. But if I’m, like I said, cut off, I’ll say, “You know, I didn’t like that. What are you talking about?'”
Ultimately, Williams and his producers figured out that the alternative – no conflict – makes terrible television. During the 2020 presidential race, the Trump campaign aired an explicit knock-off of “The View,” called “The Right View,” featuring women from the Trump orbit: Lara Trump, Mercedes Schlapp, Katrina Pierson and Kimberly Guilfoyle , who had once been a conservative panelist on “The Five”. It was an hour-long, text-based conversation between four people who were in complete agreement with each other, and it was intensely boring. “The Five” was more fun and the ratings reflected it; in 2020, the show ranked third in total viewers among all cable news shows and was the only non-prime time show to rank in the top five. Last April it drew more viewers than “The View”, the third hour of “Today” and NBA basketball on Saturday.
But just as no one realizes how hard it is to be the straight man in a comedy, many viewers underestimate, or at least misunderstand, the purpose of a lonely dissident. Perino told me about a viewer who reported it at a book signing in Colorado and asked, “Can we do something for Juan?” (Perino suggested praying for Williams; the woman agreed.)
Even like-minded Liberals did not always appreciate the role of Williams. Early in his tenure as a guest host on “The Five,” Williams told me he learned that some people in the Obama administration didn’t want him to go on a network that was so consistently opposed to the President. (“I’m like, ‘Do you look? Do you see what I’m doing there?'” Williams remembers.) But a senior Obama official – William wouldn’t tell me who – quietly told him that ‘he might be “the strongest liberal voice in America.” After all, he was the only liberal voice some loyal Fox viewers would hear on a regular basis.
Williams embraced the role, although he said his goal was not usually to win an argument or silence his fellow panelists. “It’s not ‘I’m trying to get you to agree with me,'” Williams said. “It’s ‘I’m trying to get you to open up so you can hear me.’” And some viewers of “The Five” clearly enjoyed the exhibit. “It’s a sad loss”, a person tweeted Wednesday, about the news that Williams was leaving the show. “I generally don’t agree with him. But he makes me want to listen and sometimes changes my mind. Maybe there is hope for those family dinner conversations, after all.