Somewhere in between Ben Affleck’s Dunkin’ Donuts commercial and Meghan Trainor shilling for Pringles, Fox Nation ran an ad during this year’s Super Bowl.
It wasn’t the first time the streamer splashed out on television’s most expensive audience, and it had a different message than the last time, when a 2020 Super Bowl ad heralded a “new entertainment service from the good folks at Fox News.”
This year’s model spent twice as much time lingering on the marquee names users can now find on the service. They’re probably not the names most people would expect. Kevin Costner and Kelsey Grammer are miles from the Hannity/Ingraham primetime block already, but the bigger stretch is this: Ghostbusting vodka impresario Dan Aykroyd and Reagan-era SNL vets Jim Belushi, Kevin Nealon, and Jon Lovitz, all guzzling their way through A History of the World in Six Drinks early next year. What the hell is happening?
With its emphasis on pop culture figures of a certain age, Fox Nation seems to be actively courting the Kominsky Method crowd. This wasn’t always the case. When it launched in 2018, the service branded itself “Netflix for conservatives,” but relied on in-house talent for content like Steve Doocy’s cooking show, which Netflix wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot grilling spatula. The streamer’s more recent offerings, however—and the handful of Clint Eastwood flicks now on tap as well—wouldn’t look so out of place next to Bill Burr’s latest Netflix special.
But is the world ready for Fox Nation to go Boomer-mainstream? And is that what’s really going on here? To get a better look at the pivot in progress, I spent a week watching as much Fox Nation 2.0 as my brain could withstand, which ended up being roughly 15 hours.
The initial promise of Fox Nation—your favorite Fox News stars! possibly in a kitchen!—is still present when you scroll through the app. Ainsley’s Bible Study has stuck around, and so has The Dan Bongino Show and last night’s Tucker Carlson Tonight. The limitations of that promise drew a lot of snickering reviews, but unlike the doomed CNN+, Fox Nation survived and expanded its horizons. The shift began in the summer of 2021, when Fox CFO Steve Tomsic announced at a conference his intent to test out the streamer’s capacity for “a much broader portfolio of programming.” Shortly afterward, Fox Nation licensed those Eastwood movies and debuted Duck Family Treasure and Kelsey Grammer’s Historic Battles for America. By the end of 2022, the site had also unveiled two original films, both of which are about widowed mothers finding love again. According to Lachlan Murdoch’s February 2023 earnings statement, all this broadening has paid off in “accelerated subscriber growth” and Fox Nation’s “best quarter ever for engagement.”
One of the main drivers of this growth, and the first Fox Nation show I watch, is Yellowstone One-Fifty with Kevin Costner, which came out last November. Piggybacking off the staggering success of the Yellowstone cinematic universe, Fox Nation managed to entice the flagship show’s star to lead an unrelated but identically titled series of its own. Unlike that other show, Yellowstone One-Fifty has nothing to do with ranch-intrigue on the American frontier. Instead, it’s a 150th anniversary celebration of Yellowstone National Park; a bait-and-switch masterstroke so brazen it’s impossible to get mad about.
In his Patagonia hiking vest, the star of Bull Durham traverses Yellowstone while recounting the geological expedition that spurred congress to designate it the world’s first national park. It’s a well-shot walking history tour, intercut with extensive nature-doc footage of some of the territory’s animal inhabitants, such as bison and wolves. Both aspects of the show have legit compelling moments. The only indication that this is even a Fox Nation production is the extent to which Costner paints Big Government as the villain of the story, despite Big Government ultimately agreeing to protect the park within nine months of that geological expedition.
“Only when the ideology is briefly set aside… does this entertainment service even seem like it’s trying to entertain. Most of the other programming instead appears intended to keep viewers entrenched in a state of perpetual culture-war outrage.”
A pair of other recent Fox Nation shows each resembles a different half of Yellowstone One-Fifty. Kelsey Grammer’s Historic Battles finds the host recounting tales from America’s past, while A Year on Planet Earth is 100% a nature documentary. Both shows are about as relatively apolitical as Costner’s. Anyone combing through the fine print of Frasier Crane’s take on the Battle of Little Bighorn is bound to find some questionable framing, but to this history layman it sounded rather straightforward. Despite the LARPing-level production values of its battle reenactments, Grammer’s show is pure catnip for military dads. As for A Year on Planet Earth, aside from a conspicuous dearth of climate doom-casting, it could easily air on PBS.
Judging by these shows, many Never Trumpers and even some enthusiastic Biden voters might buy what Fox Nation 2.0 is selling, especially if they enjoy the antics of the Duck Family. It’s unclear whether they’d also be into Roseanne Barr’s just-released special—a collection of unpolished, unhinged rants designed to elicit clapter. (A joke-free mention of the open-carry law in Houston gets an applause break, for instance.) The best part is Barr’s account of Fox Nation approaching her about doing this very special. “They said, ‘no racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia or antisemitism,’” she recalls, “And I said, ‘Well there goes my whole fucking act.’” If it really happened, it goes against in-house style guidelines around the concept of free speech; where having to watch what you say in any way is meant to be an Orwellian nightmare. If it didn’t happen, well, it’s a pretty good joke.
Barr’s special is called Cancel This, and it resides within a carousel of options on Fox Nation called “Canceling Cancel Culture.” Unlike what’s in the Super Bowl ad, this is exactly the material most people might expect to find here: Don Bongino’s Canceled in the USA, Uncancelling Columbus, Closing the Book: The Cancelation of Dr. Seuss. Here you can also find the new four-part series, Sharon Osbourne: To Hell and Back, which dissects Osbourne’s March 2021 firing from The Talk as though it were the JFK assassination. While it did convince me that CBS’s stated reasons for firing her seem like they could be bullshit, the series is far less persuasive on the woke mind-virus supposedly endangering all of our jobs.
“One slip-up and you’re canceled and your career’s over,” Meghan McCain says at one point, before clarifying: “Her career isn’t over but it could have been if she wasn’t Sharon Osbourne.”
This is the point of all this cancel-centric programming: to feed viewers’ grievances and make them feel like victims. It’s the connective tissue that binds much of Fox News’ focus—crime, immigration, a changing world—and the supposed scourge of wokeness makes a great addition to the persecution canon. Fox News viewers are inundated with it nightly, and Fox Nation subscribers are bound to come across it too.
Perhaps the new Boomer-mainstream Fox Nation is using Kevin Costner to lure folks who lean liberal on most issues, but hate having to hold their tongues around Gen Z relatives; only to reel them in with shows that cater to cancellation-anxiety. The sight of Dan Aykroyd dressed like the bartender from The Shining could be the first step on a path to “You know, Tucker is actually making a lot of sense here.”
Because I watch my 15 hours in the week leading up to the Oscars, the site keeps advertising a new four-part series called The Death of Hollywood. This is the furthest I get down the Fox News rabbit hole: watching the network’s entertainment service explain what’s wrong with the greater entertainment landscape. The series is not without some valid points: millions of filmgoers would agree that the last two Best Picture winners—Nomadland and Coda—do not represent their movie tastes at all, and there’s definitely something to the idea that we no longer have movie stars, just sentient brands.
The central thesis, however, naturally ends up being that what’s killing Hollywood is left-wing elites and their woke ways—an idea that would be easier to engage with if it weren’t also Fox News’s answer for what’s wrong with nearly everything.
If viewers need proof that wokeness is indeed killing Hollywood, the smoking gun in the series comes from Quentin Tarantino. During a recent interview with Bill Maher—who I’m almost stunned doesn’t have a Fox Nation show himself—the divisive master director says that in Hollywood now, “ideology trumps entertaining.” Whether he means it in a certain way matters not, this quote is the final word on the subject. Case closed. So, it’s totally paradoxical that anyone who hates when ideology trumps entertainment could also stomach Fox Nation. This is a place, after all, where even a show called Presidential Pooches takes shots at Biden for “leveraging” his dogs in the 2020 campaign, while praising Trump for remaining true to his dog-agnostic self.
Only when the ideology is briefly set aside—in shows like Yellowstone and Duck Family Treasure—does this entertainment service even seem like it’s trying to entertain. Most of the other programming instead appears intended to keep viewers entrenched in a state of perpetual culture-war outrage, which is Fox News’ bread and butter.
My week in Fox Nation also happens to be the week Tucker Carlson uses edited clips of the Capitol riot, obtained exclusively from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, to promote the narrative that the riot was just a peaceful protest; that everyone in the government and media is lying, except for Tucker Carlson, who is brave enough to share the unfettered truth. This is ideology trumping entertainment in a way that sure seems a touch more condescending and dangerous than, say, Pixar shoehorning a same-sex kiss into the kids’ movie Lightyear, a situation Fox News covered exhaustively last summer.
At least the producers of Lightyear presumably believe what they’re saying with that kiss—that LGBTQ people exist and it’s okay for kids to be aware of them. The same can’t be said for Tucker Carlson. Another thing that happened during my Fox Nation week is the latest drop of text messages from the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit, where Carlson straight-up admits he lied about Trump in the leadup to the riot. As his texts in the days just before Jan. 6 reveal, the host then said of the previous four years, “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest.”
It also seems too tough for Fox News viewers to digest the fact that the network’s top entertainer has just been performing ideology at them—which is why they will almost certainly never hear about it on Fox News.
Perhaps the more Boomer-mainstream audience over at Fox Nation could handle it, though.
Sure enough, the following week, Fox Nation debuts a new docu-series about a man who promoted a dangerous lie, taking advantage of certain people’s eagerness to believe the worst about their political opposites, only to get caught red-handed.
It’s called Jussie Smollett: Anatomy of a Hoax.