Tell your grandparents it’s time to move on. Two months after firing Tucker Carlson, Fox News announced that his replacement in the 8 p.m. hour would be Jesse Watters, a longtime network voice and provacateur who has been working up the ranks since he first appeared as a correspondent for The O’Reilly Factor in 2003. But can he handle the prime-time hour that has made stars — and powerful political forces — out of past hosts? Here are the big questions about Watters as he prepares to take over the the big show on July 17.
Who is Jesse Watters?
Jesse Watters, 44, doesn’t quite have the high-society bonafides of Tucker Carlson, heir to a TV-dinner fortune, but he still has the blue blood of his predecessor: Watters’s great-grandfather was publisher of The Saturday Evening Post during the magazine’s heyday. After graduating from Trinity College a decade after Carlson did, Watters went directly to Fox News, where Bill O’Reilly put him on air after a year as a production assistant. “I decided we had to get Watters out of the building — had to,” O’Reilly said in 2011. “Why waste Watters here? Why not inflict him on the entire country?” Watters’s man-on-the-street segment, “Watters’ World,” ran on The O’Reilly Factor for more than a decade until it became its own monthly show in 2015. Two years later, Watters was promoted to co-host of Fox News roundtable The Five, today’s most watched show on the network. In 2022, he bumped up to the 7 p.m. hour for Jesse Watters Primetime, which has the second- or third-best post-Carlson ratings on Fox (depending on the month).
What’s he like on TV?
At the beginning, Watters’s “ambush journalism” mostly involved asking people questions they didn’t know and trying to embarrass them — a format that, most of the time, wouldn’t be out of place on mainstream late night.
As he became a network host, Watters dialed back a little of the snarkiness from his early days, pivoting to a model pretty close to Carlson’s. Raise a question at the beginning of an hour — “What happened to journalism?” — then diving into ways that the modern world has failed what has come before it. (Eventually, the answer to that question somehow revolved around Hunter Biden.)
Is Carlson’s team going to be involved?
Probably not. Earlier this month, Carlson’s managing editor resigned after writing a chyron describing President Biden as a “wannabe dictator.” His senior editorial producer left days later. And on June 26, Fox News laid off the eight members of Carlson’s staff who were still at the network, informing them that they could receive “enhanced severance” if they stayed on until July 14. One of those ousted, Carlson’s head writer, went on a Twitter tirade, calling out Fox News executive Meade Cooper for the “callousness” of the firings: “Enjoy watching the work product of eight producers, whom Meade Cooper is forcing to work before she fires them. (Under threat of losing their severance.) I’m sure it’ll be great content.”
While the old Carlson staffers are free to apply for new jobs at the network, Watters already has a team in place. And considering that Fox News is trying to distance itself from the legal exposure of Carlson and some members of his staff, expect a reasonably clean break — even if the format of Watters’s program isn’t that much of a departure.
Have there been any controversies?
Watters got in a bit of trouble for hyping up QAnon and for lewd comments about Ivanka Trump. But his biggest controversy to date involved an October 2016 segment, in which he went to Chinatown and asked Asian New Yorkers if they knew karate and whether he should bow when saying hello. He offered a non-apology, claiming the segment was meant to be “tongue in cheek.” In 2021, three women who formerly worked at Fox News told the Daily Beast they were insulted by his statement that women should “slap the man in the face” if they were subject to harassment — which the ex-staffers, including Gretchen Carlson, said placed the “responsibility to stop harassment” on women. (Watters claimed his intention was to “defend victims and hold inappropriate politicians accountable.”) As Carlson’s content and reports of systemic misogyny at Fox News have made clear, those comments were par for the course at the network. And, crucially, Watters did not appear to be involved in the defamation suit from Dominion that has weighed down the network over the past two years.
But can he actually handle Carlson’s old slot?
Not only has Watters hung around Fox News long enough for its loyal audience to recognize him on sight, he currently hosts two of the top shows on the network. But the 8 p.m. hour has seen a major ratings drop-off following Carlson’s firing. With Carlson counterprogramming on his Twitter show in apparent defiance of his contract, Watters’s main challenge will be pulling his audience back to the network.
Fox News executives have long believed that the system makes the star. Now Watters will have to prove that the formula still works.