‘Outnumbered’: The Making of a Fox News Hit
Take four women and one guy, and set them chewing on the issues of the day—but Fox News insists its daytime chat show is not modeled on ‘The View.’
Fox News Channel anchorwoman Harris Faulkner is cohost of Outnumbered--a five-month-old talk show featuring four eye-catching women ostensibly pitted against “one lucky guy,” which is actually a term of art in Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes’s latest creation.
“We have a strong editorial side--those guys are rock stars,” Faulkner says, referring to Fox News’s ratings-crushing lineup of right-leaning opinion-dishers. “I’m on the news side. I’m journalistic. ‘News’ is our middle name--literally.”
Yet Faulkner, a willowy African-American with smoky eyes, a fabulous jawline, and a perfectly modulated broadcast voice--and who looks decades younger than her 49 years (today’s her birthday)--is also the keeper of a device she calls “the dress color wheel.”
“Heck, it’s not like we’re doing radio,” she notes.
Which is to say, Faulkner--who presides over Outnumbered along with Fox Business Network anchorwoman Sandra Smith--is the program’s unofficial wardrobe czarina.
“The other ladies tease me about this. Somebody tweeted out today, ‘You guys look like a pack of Skittles,’ ” Faulkner says with a laugh. “But I think that’s real pretty on TV. I also think it’s ridiculous if people show up in the same dress. So, from the beginning, I volunteered to do this. Every week, we all fill out our colors for the entire week, so people don’t show up wearing the same thing. And what that has done is made us very conscious. So you don’t see the same necklines on the couch, or the same colors. It’s good to kind of mix it up.”
She adds: “It’s like we’re all going out to lunch together…If we’re going to lunch with our girls, we’re gonna be lookin’ good, honey!”
Smith, meanwhile, says: “The dress requirement is that we look and sound our best every single day. It’s a visual medium.”
Outnumbered airs live at noon weekdays and has grown in popularity since its April 28 launch. According to Nielsen, the show's overall audience has risen from 843,000 to over a million, with a nearly 50 percent spike in the all-important 24-54 age demographic on which advertising is sold.
While Outnumbered technically falls under the cable channel’s hard news programming, it is really an improbable confection of seriously bad news (Ebola, ISIS, domestic abuse), rapid-fire commentary, pop-cultural analysis, and flirty fun, with the “one lucky guy” something of a slice of maleness smack-dab in the middle of the four ladies on a sectional sofa--a man sandwich, if you will.
Fox News executive vice president Bill Shine recalls that Ailes--who with Rupert Murdoch launched the cable channel in 1996 and since 2002 has enjoyed 50 straight quarters of ratings dominance--wanted to address softness in the noon hour, during the Happening Now news block.
“It was another pure Roger thing,” says Shine, who rides herd on the prime-time opinion shows as well as the morning’s Fox & Friends, but also helped develop Outnumbered. “We were looking at the numbers, and there seemed to be a little weakness or softness at around noon. It was a slight dip in the demo or a slight dip in the total audience. So maybe we could break up the two-hour news block here and put something in between that would be a little bit still newsy but also be a little bit more fun and a little bit more interesting.”
Describing a brainstorming session in Ailes’s office back in February, Shine recalls, “Roger said, ‘How about an idea with four women versus one guy?’ Apparently it was an idea he’d had for a long time. So we talked about that, and at some point along the way, Roger said, ‘It’s four versus one and the guy would be outnumbered.’ And boom! That’s where the title came from.”
Despite outward appearances, Shine says Outnumbered is by no means a descendant of Barbara Walters’s The View, the mother of all daytime programs pitched to women; nor, despite its four-fifths female ensemble, is Outnumbered aimed at women per se. Indeed, like the channel as a whole, its viewership is majority male (about 54 percent men to 46 percent women, according to Nielsen).
“One of the goals was, we didn’t want it to be an early afternoon version of The Five,” says Shine, referring to Fox News’s sometimes-inflammatory 5 p.m. opinion show that features a panel of non-reporters. “That was one part of selecting the folks on the show every day--to just make sure we include journalists. Look at Sandra and look at Harris. They’re two journalists. And, listen, we’re in a very good news cycle right now.”
During an episode last week, in the ground-floor Outnumbered studio with picture windows looking out on Midtown Manhattan’s West 47th Street, the influence of Faulkner’s color wheel was much in evidence. She wore a sea-green, V-necked frock with a modest hint of cleavage. Smith, 34, a former college track star who was a stock trader before getting into television, wore a hot-pink jacket over a black dress.
Former Republican operative Andrea Tantaros, 35, and Libertarian Fox Business anchor and erstwhile MTV veejay Kennedy, 42—two of the Fox News stock company of rotating cohosts who appear regularly on Outnumbered—wore purple and cool pink dresses, respectively. It was a triumph of color-wheel diversity. (Tantaros, who unlike her cohosts is unmarried, calculates that the four-to-one female/male ratio is socially resonant because “four women to one guy is pretty much the dating ratio in most major cities these days.”)
Meanwhile, the “lucky guy,” 40-year-old John Rich of the country music duo Big & Rich, wore bluejeans, a white shirt and a black jacket, topped by a black Stetson. Unlike the women, however, he sported a handlebar moustache and he wasn’t showing off his Rockette-caliber gams. The sexual tension seemed to be of the innocent sort.
“Your wife’s not watching this show, is she?” joked Bill Shine, who had dropped by the studio during a commercial break. Rich, the married father of two young boys, chuckled accommodatingly.
“Put your hands where we can see them!” Kennedy quipped. Every so often during the breaks, she displayed her athletic prowess by whipping her plastic bottle of green tea at the floor director, a guy named Patch, who usually caught it. “Worst throw ever,” he complained when one of Kennedy’s tosses eluded his grasp.
Not that Outnumbered is all fun and games. The episode I was invited to watch in the studio opened with breaking news about the Ebola-related death of a Liberian man in Dallas; and included seemingly well-informed if occasionally tendentious discussions of former secretary of defense Leon Panetta’s criticisms of President Obama, the fall to Islamic terrorists of Kobani on the Turkish-Syrian border; Turkey’s precarious position as a NATO ally; the NFL’s plodding response to cases of domestic violence among its players; the federal government’s continual invasions of individual privacy in the name of quashing crime and terror; and a few other topics in a dizzying, breathless talkfest.
At one point, Kennedy, speaking in an exaggerated “Thurston Howell III” lockjaw, introduced a segment on spot interviews with “Haaahvaad” students who argued that the United States was a bigger threat than ISIS to world peace.
“A bunch of snot-nosed brats,” John Rich opined.
Elsewhere in the program, on which the country star plugged Big & Rich’s new album, Gravity, there was a lively conversation about a cadre of French feminists who furiously objected to a statue inspired by the famous photo of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on V-E Day, claiming it was a depiction of “sexual assault.” Everybody agreed the French feminists were losers.
“She had her leg up,” Faulkner said about the kiss. “When we put our leg up like that, it means we like it.”
Kennedy added: “Here’s a pent-up sailor who comes to Times Square to celebrate with a beautiful nurse. Who hasn’t had fantasies about both groups?”
“Have you seen the art in France?” Rich chimed in, suggesting that Parisian museum fare isn’t exactly G-rated. “They need some Redneck party girls!”
At which point he pulled out a T-shirt, a product of his trademarked Redneck Riviera fashion brand, and gifted it to Tantaros sitting beside him on the sofa.
“REDNECK GIRLS DO IT BETTER,” the T-shirt’s slogan claimed.
Given all that brazen political incorrectness, it’s hardly a surprise that Outnumbered--like much of Fox News’s opinion programming--has quickly become a lightning rod for ideologically liberal commentary, with clips of the show frequently cited unfavorably on Huffington Post and MSNBC.
“The Show That Sexism Built,” one blog called it, adding the claim that it “doesn’t depart from Ailes’s trademark exploitation of Fox women” and enforces a “no-pants dress code thus far for female anchors, whose legs are prominently on display and nearly always crossed toward the male guest du jour.”
For the record, the women of Outnumbered deny that such a dress code exists, and Shine insists he wouldn’t mind if a cohost showed up in a pantsuit.
Tantaros--who points out, accurately, that Fox News certainly isn’t the only network or cable news operation where female presenters show off their legs--dismisses the sexism charge.
“You really have to consider the source,” she says. “A lot of these organizations basically attack women on Fox News. Aren’t they actually attacking women that are pretty successful and smart and weighing in on the issues? And it’s sometimes the most insulting form of attack. And really? They’re going to attack me for not being on the side of women? It’s a bit ironic.”
Country music’s John Rich, for his part, declares himself a loyal fan, calling his Outnumbered co-hosts “four gorgeous, intelligent women.” He adds that sitting on the sofa “is a challenging spot, because the subject matter spans from everything to Ebola to music. It’s wild…It’s an awesome thing.”