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Fox’s lone wolf had a tough job. But it made for better television.

I spoke to Williams on the phone in March 2020, a few days after the coronavirus lockdown, when he and his colleagues were being sent home from the studio to weather a pandemic of unknown length. I had been following the success of The Five, one of Fox News’ constant audiences, 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 called for a conversation with then-Fox mastermind Roger Ailes, who described an idea he had come up with for the difficult-to-crack time slot at 5 p.m. It was inspired, said Ailes Williams, from a section of his career in the early 1970s when he had produced two Broadway shows. He wanted to cast a show with five standard characters, including a “leading man” guy with a strong conservative voice; A beautiful woman; and what Ailes called the “Falstaff guy” who would serve as an adversary. Unlike traditional news panels where various voices freely competed against everyone to make brief political statements, “this was more like … a family conversation,” Williams told me, “and the idea was, I think, you you Let yourself be infected by these characters. ”

Fox was hardly the first broadcaster to discover that political conflict can be addictive. The public television round table “The McLaughlin Group”, which fed on disagreement, debuted in the 1980s; CNN’s “Crossfire” was so intent on creating division that Jon Stewart famously claimed the show would “hurt America.” Most of the energy in ABC’s popular “The View” rests on the “Hot Topics” segment, in which five predominantly liberal women warm up current events with a designated Conservative – a slot currently occupied by Meghan McCain – and tensions are often high are.

Among these shows, too, “The Five” is characterized by a rigid structure, a subliminal sense of humor and a calculated mixture of serious topics and light-hearted fluff. Kitschy jokes, animal clips, conversations about the private life of the hosts and rapid changes of subject all reduce the temperature. (“Our producers are really good at what they do, so they don’t do a show where we yell at each other for 60 minutes,” co-host Dana Perino told me in an interview last year.) Especially in the In the last five years, when political divisions really tore some families apart, the show became a proxy for a scenario many of us tried to avoid: sitting at a dining table with warlike relatives and celebrating it in an uncomfortable shouting match, at that someone decided to throw food across the table, then wipe the potatoes and sauce off the wall, and return 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 major player in a battle over mashed potatoes takes a certain composure and strategy as well. In order to prepare for the show every day, he told me, he familiarized himself with the right-wing press, from Drudge to Breitbart to National review, “Just to know where those voices are because it’ll give me a strong clue as to where the Conservatives on ‘The Five’ will be from.” Row was. A contrary statement “acts like an accelerator, so that the debate is stimulated,” he told me. But “it can’t be something to be dismissed or set aside … you don’t want to end the conversation. You want to feed the conversation. “

Williams’ comments were treated from mild tolerance to utter disdain, and from time to time the flares got loud enough to make headlines of their own. In February 2019, co-host Greg Gutfeld yelled at Williams for saying he and co-host Jesse Watters were “in the bunker” for Trump; Gutfeld exploded in September 2019 after Williams accused him of selling GOP talking points. Last March, Tucker Carlson, who stood in as a panelist, openly mocked Williams during a rant over the GOP and the deficit; Williams acted as he often does in situations like this and kept talking until he finished his testimony, even when Carlson yelled at him. In general, Williams claimed a Zen-like approach to a scenario where many people would be left curled up. “We do this every day,” he told me. “Sometimes things are said like, they sting, and sometimes they cut… Most of the time it is not in the air, so there is hardly any comment on it during the break. But when I get circumcised, as I said, 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 race, the Trump campaign aired an explicit copy of “The View” called “The Right View,” which featured women from Trump orbit: Lara Trump, Mercedes Schlapp, Katrina Pierson and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the was once a conservative panelist on “The Five”. It was an on-message conversation that lasted for hours between four people who were completely in agreement, and it was extremely boring. “The Five” was more fun, and the reviews reflected it; In 2020, the show ranked third among viewers out of all cable news shows and was the only non-primetime show to crack the top 5. Last April, it drew more viewers overall than “The View,” the third hour of “Today,” and NBA Saturday basketball.

But just as nobody realizes how hard it is to be the straight in a comedy, many viewers underestimate or misunderstand the purpose of a lonely dissident. Perino told me about a spectator who stopped 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 Williams’ role. At the start of 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 break into a network that was so consistently against the president. (“I said, ‘Watch it? 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 heard consistently.

Williams took on the role despite saying his goal generally isn’t to win an argument or shut down his fellow campaigners. “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 you can hear me.'” And some viewers of “The Five” clearly appreciated the exposure. “This is a sad loss,” one person tweeted on Wednesday over the news that Williams is leaving the show. “I usually disagree with him. But he makes me listen and occasionally changes my mind. ”Maybe there is still hope for these family dinner conversations.

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