Frolicking in the Fox Den

At 8:39 a.m. on Oct. 20—Sumo Thursday!—E.D. Hill, the pert, hyper-caffeinated blonde who is one-third of the anchor desk on the morning show Fox and Friends, stood outside News Corp. headquarters in the Sixth Avenue canyon in 53-degree weather and gave a shout-out to America’s heartland:

“Hey!” she said through a modified Texas twang, introducing a segment producers had dubbed “No Gut, No Glory.” “We are out here surrounded by men who are very big and have very little on.”

Standing next to her was Brian Kilmeade, another anchor and the closest thing Fox has to a Matt Lauer. He introduced the big, naked men’s coach—a small, clothed, Mr. Miyagi–type named Yoshisada Yonezuka. After mispronouncing the man’s name, Mr. Kilmeade looked straight into the camera, shrugged and said: “I think I just ordered out somewhere!”

Ladies and gentlemen: The anti- Today show!

You won’t find Ms. Hill’s Southern charm or Mr. Kilmeade’s Long Island folksiness on just any morning-news program. Nor is there another anchor/weatherman quite like Steve Doocy, who over the course of Sumo Thursday! joked that he starts each day off with a mimosa, discussed the contours of a jock strap, and revealed that he has no hair on his chest but “one hair that grows straight out of my ear—just straight out.”

Fox and Friends is the top-rated cable morning program (and it even occasionally beats The Early Show on CBS), but its success is often overlooked. It covers the same topics in roughly the same format as its brethren on the broadcast networks. But by positioning itself as the antithesis to standard mealy network fare, Fox has become an unlikely beneficiary of—and a factor in—the morning-show wars.

Constrained by their tightly scripted schedules, big gets and mountains of demographic research, the broadcast-network morning shows—despite their executive producers’ claims of unique strategies and distinct visions—all end up looking pretty much the same. Like everything else on the Fox news channel, Fox and Friends is made on the cheap with an eye toward high production value. The hosts specialize in unscripted banter, and they do best when there is big breaking news. Beholden to no one in particular, except the ever-present spirit of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, producers can scrap whatever’s on the script and dedicate all three hours to the big story of the day. Several times this fall, Fox and Friends has seen its audience climb to around four million people—in range of Today and GMA, which average between five and six million viewers—on the back of breaking news.

Recently, Fox and Friends has begun making a play for the hefty morning-show advertising dollars that have made GMA, Today and even The Early Show such valuable profit centers in the otherwise financially downtrodden broadcast-network news divisions. The ratings leaps this fall, and Fox’s effort to cast its program as an “antidote,” in the words of Roger Domal, the network’s national sales director, have helped them win deals with the big morning advertisers: pharmaceutical companies, car manufacturers and large retailers, among others.

“I think that GMA and the Today show are very similar programs,” said Mr. Domal. “They’re segmented similarly. They have the same type of guests. Ours is a more free-flowing show. It has a lot of banter. There’s definitely a different feel to the program. People who watch stay with it for lengths of time and are very loyal to the program, and that’s what’s enabled us to jump up—both ratings-wise and revenue-wise.”

Oct. 20 was not a big news day. After Mr. Kilmeade’s bit of har-har provincialism, the wrestlers did a quick demonstration to the delight of a crowd at the studio and approximately 1.1 million more who were watching from home. When it was all over, Ms. Hill, who in addition to hosting the morning show has eight children and a house in Connecticut, left the staging area, beaming. The instant she got out of range of the cameras, her 1,000-watt smile contorted into an expression of such profound disgust you’d think Al Franken had just vomited on her shoe.

“Yick,” she said, waving a hand toward the dimple-bottomed athletes.

This is roughly the same face Ms. Hill and her colleagues make when discussing their competitors in broadcast news. Sitting in the Fox News “war room” after that day’s show, Ms. Hill, Mr. Kilmeade and Mr. Doocy described NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America as overwrought and starchy. In a word, to use Ms. Hill’s, “boring.”

“I tell people you have to watch our show three times,” said Ms. Hill. “The first time, you won’t get it and you’ll go, ‘What in the world is that?’ You know, ‘Can’t they get some professionals? Where are the real people?’ And then the second time, you start chuckling a little bit. And then after the third time, you can’t go back to anything else because you’ll be bored senseless.”

Fox has just launched a new marketing campaign to this effect, featuring the whole Fox and Friends family posing under the headline, “The Biggest, Best, Most Important Morning Show on Television.” The text is enormous and black, except a few words, which are highlighted in red: “the,” “best” and “show on television.”

And then there’s the not-so-subtle dig at the competition, taking advantage of gossip items about rivalries and backstabbing on the sets of the network morning programs: Underneath, in yellow, the ad reads: “And our people actually like each other.”

Take that, Matt and Katie! Charlie and Diane!

“I tell people that Steve and E.D. and Brian actually are people you’d like to have breakfast with,” said Bill Shine, head of programming for the Fox News Channel. “If you’re standing outside of Today or GMA, I think people are enamored, they say, ‘Oh, look, there are the stars.’ But our anchors are real people. I think, if you came downstairs in your pajamas, and Steve was in the kitchen, you probably wouldn’t call the cops. You’d put on another cup of coffee.”

So while everyone else waits, hearts in throats, for GMA to beat Today for the first time in more than a decade, members of the Fox and Friends crew are denying rumors of having been fixed up with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (as news anchor Lauren Green did after a headline-making misunderstanding involving Fox correspondent James Rosen on Sept. 27) and delivering exegeses on why the term “fat bastard” seems to have left our lexicon (as Mr. Kilmeade did with the actor James Woods on the Oct. 20 show).

In the control room at the start of Thursday’s program, while Mr. Kilmeade was teasing the sumo segment at the top of the 7 o’clock hour (“Some really heavy guys are gonna go at it, and you’re gonna be able to see their cheeks”), network executive producer for programming Suzanne Scott explained how they differ from the traditional morning fare.

“Steve, E.D. and Brian wake up with the American heartland,” she said. “They bring them their news, and they have some fun as well.”

The heartland—these are the “friends” of whom Fox speaks. Unlike other morning shows, which are programmed according to coastal (and feminine) sensibilities, Fox and Friends aims straight for Kansas and its surrounding territories. They revel in the innocuously wacky and the morally uplifting. News about New York, such as an item on Thursday about the Soup Nazi reopening shop on 55th Street, is deemed relevant to any viewer “who might be visiting New York, as a tourist.”

A viewer, perhaps, like 57-year-old Jerry Willis of Dexter, Mo. Mr. Willis visited Fox and Friends with his wife Judy during a short layover in New York on the couple’s way back from a mission trip to the Philippines. They, along with all the other members of their Baptist congregation in Dexter, love Fox and Friends, Mr. Willis said, because “it’s conservative,” a charge its anchors dispute, and because “the other stuff is so repetitious,” a charge they don’t.

Conservative or not, Fox makes a serious effort to appeal to the Willis’ and their congregation by making the show unusually accessible. Fox and Friends has a daily segment where viewers can sound off on hot-button issues as if they were listening to a local talk-radio show. Thursday’s question was about who should pay to help people who don’t heed mandatory hurricane-evacuation orders. One caller said the people who stay behind should pay to be rescued. Another said the government should, because “the state makes enough money off homeowners” already.

Occasionally they throw open the phone lines to let viewers question a guest. And unlike GMA and Today, which corral their sign-wielding acolytes into fenced-in cheering sections, Fox and Friends has a big back window, directly behind the hosts, that is open to whoever might like to wander by and chip a minute or two off his 15. Jerry and Judy Willis stood outside this window for an hour on Sumo Thursday!, in matching Nautica windbreakers, waving and talking on cell phones to their grandkids.

“We’ve been wanting to do this for years,” Mr. Willis told The Observer later in the morning, as he watched the end of the sumo demonstration. “This is neat,” he whispered to his wife. “This is neat.”

Then the segment ended. Ms. Hill hustled by, making her “yick” face.

Mr. Willis couldn’t resist: “You’re even more beautiful in person!” he shouted. Ms. Willis, standing behind him, nodded in agreement.

“Thank you,” Ms. Hill said, slowing down and brightening up.

“With other shows that are at big networks where there’s a ton of people, it’s not intimate,” Ms. Hill said later. “You don’t feel like you really know those people. With us, you get the sense that it’s a very small group of people that you know very well, like friends.”

Fox and Friends does very few taped pieces—featuring a correspondent out on a scene somewhere—a strategy which saves them money and adds to the intimacy of the show. Every once in awhile, the anchors check in with Ms. Green over on the news desk, and occasionally they ask correspondent Molly Henneberg what’s happening in Washington. But Ms. Hill, Mr. Kilmeade and Doppler Doocy are never far away.

That the camera rarely veers from its stars makes watching Fox and Friends feel a little like attending a cabaret. A cabaret, that is, whose hosts are three socially conscious, morally righteous and occasionally indignant stand-up comedians. Yes, guests come in and out of the picture. They interview the occasional government official live via satellite. On weightier matters, Bill Kristol teleports in. But, above all else, this is the E.D., Brian and Steve show.

“Because we are a news channel, we do, by our mission, have to interview a lot of the same people the other shows interview,” Mr. Doocy said. “For my money, it’s always a challenge, and ultimately more rewarding, if you can make the person who has just been on five other TV channels seem a little more human or make them laugh a little bit or have them reveal some side that you don’t see on Meet the Press.”

He remembered one time when they gave Henry Kissinger a Fox and Friends embossed soap-on-a-rope. The former Secretary of State laughed and laughed, they said. Then he asked how to hang it.

Fox and Friends has been on the air since 1998, with the same anchor trifecta since 1999. The show airs live in the nearly 90 countries that receive the Fox News Channel, but the program is not on a tape delay, unlike Today or GMA, which air at 7 a.m. on the East and West Coasts. So if Jerry and Judy Willis want to watch in Missouri, they have to get up at 6 a.m., which they sometimes do. Because anything else would be a betrayal of friends—and of Fox.

“That Brian is a nice guy,” Mr. Willis said, at the conclusion of “No Gut, No Glory.” “You tell him he’s a nice guy.”

At a post-show wrap-up meeting, the Fox and Friends team, led by Ms. Scott and senior producers David Clarke and Christine Thoma, discussed upcoming Hurricane Wilma coverage and other stories they wanted for the following week. The anchors, who have 14 children between them, agreed it was time to take another look at the effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. Kilmeade said he wanted to try to book John McCain, and “if we could think of something new to do with Harriet Ellan Miers, that’d be great.”

“Yeah,” said Ms. Hill.

“Sumo!” said Mr. Doocy.