I spoke to Williams on the phone in March 2020, a few days after the coronavirus lockdown, when he and his colleagues had just been sent home from the studio to tackle a pandemic of unknown length. I had been watching the success of “The Five,” one of Fox News’ consistent rating hits, and wanted to know what it is like to be the only liberal voice on the show. Williams remembered the day years ago when he was invited for a chat with then Fox mastermind Roger Ailes, who described an idea he had come up with for the hard-to-crack 5pm. Time window. Ailes told Williams that it was inspired by a section of his career in the early 1970s when he produced two Broadway shows. He wanted to cast a show with five stick characters, including a “leader” with a strong conservative voice; A beautiful woman; and what Ailes described as a “Falstaff-esque” character who would serve as an adversary. Unlike traditional news panels where different voices battled for free political items, “this was more like … a conversation between family members,” said Williams, “and the idea was, I think you would do it with these Characters taken. ”
Fox was hardly the first channel to discover that political conflict can be addictive. The public TV roundtable “The McLaughlin Group”, which arose from disagreement, made its debut in the 1980s. CNN’s “Crossfire” was so intent on creating divisions that Jon Stewart became famous asserts The show “Hurt America”. Most of the energy in ABC’s popular “The View” goes to the “Hot Topics” segment, where five mostly liberal women deal with current affairs with a Conservative-designate – a slot currently occupied by Meghan McCain – and the tension are often high.
Even among these shows, “The Five” is characterized by a rigid structure, a sense of humor, and a calculated mix of serious subjects and light-hearted fluff. Stupid jokes, animal clips, conversations about the private life of the hosts and quick changes of subject cause the temperature to drop. (“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 the last five Years ago, when political divisions really tore some families apart, the show became the proxy for a scenario many of us tried to avoid: sitting at a dining table with warring relatives and shouting it out in an uncomfortable match in which someone decided Throwing food across the table, then wiping the potatoes and sauce off the wall and returning to the table the next evening.
Williams, who had been a rotating panelist, took over the show’s liberal slot full-time in 2017 after Bob Beckel, an original co-host, was fired from the network for a racist comment he made off-air. And Williams understood that being a leading man in a mashed potato fight takes a certain kind of equanimity and strategy too. In order to prepare for the show each day, he familiarized himself with the right-wing press, from Drudge to Breitbart to the National Review, “Just to know where those voices are because it gives me a strong clue as to where the Conservatives on The Five are going to be from.” And he tried to figure out how to score his points when it came his turn. A contrary statement, “acts as an accelerator, stimulating the debate,” he told me. But “it can’t be something that gets out of hand or is put aside … you don’t want to end the conversation.” You want to feed the conversation. “
Williams’ comments were treated with everything from mild tolerance to outright disdain, and periodically the flare-ups got loud enough to make news of their own. In February 2019 co-host Greg Gutfeld screeched at Williams, because he and his co-host Jesse Watters were “in the bunker” for Trump; in September 2019 Gutfeld exploded after Williams accused him of selling GOP talking points. Last March, Tucker Carlson joined the panel as a panelist. openly mocked Williams during a gossip about the GOP and the deficit; Williams behaved as he often did in situations like this, continuing to talk until he had finished his point, even as Carlson yelled at him. In general, Williams claimed a Zen-like approach to a scenario where many people would have curled up in a ball. “We do this every day,” he told me. “Sometimes the things that are said are like, they sting and sometimes they cut … Most of the time it’s not in the air, so there is hardly any comment on it during the break. But when, as I said, I make a cut I say, “You know, I didn’t like that. What are you talking about?'”
Ultimately, Williams and his producers understood that the alternative – not conflict – makes terrible television. During the 2020 presidential contest, an explicit tee from “The View” entitled “The Right View” with women from Trump orbit was streamed as part of the Trump campaign: Lara Trump, Mercedes Schlapp, Katrina Pierson and Kimberly Guilfoyle were once streamed Conservative panelist on “The Five”. It was an hour’s conversation on message between four people who were completely in agreement, and it was extremely boring. “The Five” was more fun and the reviews reflect it; In 2020, the show ranked third among total viewers among all cable news shows and was the only non-primetime show to crack the top 5. Last April, it drew more viewers than The View, the third hour of Today, and NBA Saturday Basketball.
But just as nobody realizes how difficult 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 her at a book signing in Colorado and asked, “Can we do something about Juan?” (Perino suggested that they pray for Williams; the woman agreed.)
Even like-minded liberals haven’t always appreciated William’s role. At the beginning of his tenure as a guest presenter on “The Five,” Williams said, he learned that some people in the Obama administration didn’t want him to join a network that is so consistently against the president. (“I’m like, ‘Are you watching? See what I’m doing over there?'” Williams recalled.) But a senior Obama official – Williams wouldn’t tell me who – quietly told him it was him could be “The Strongest Liberal Voice in America.” After all, he was the only liberal voice some loyal Fox viewers would hear consistently.
Williams took on this role, although he said his goal generally wasn’t to win an argument or shut down his peers. “It’s not, ‘I’m trying to get you to agree,” Williams said. “It’s,“ I’m trying to get you to be open to me so that you will hear me. ”And some viewers of“ The Five “clearly appreciated the exposure. “That is a sad loss,” said one person tweeted on Wednesday over the news that Williams was leaving the show. “I usually disagree with him. But he makes me listen and occasionally changes my mind. “Maybe there is hope for these family dinner talks after all.