NEW YORK -- This week, the panelists on Fox News Channel's unexpected ensemble hit, "The Five," mark two years on the air – or 22 months longer than planned.
The program's deceptively simple premise is five folks sitting around a table at 5 p.m., kicking around the day's news and hot topics. "The Five" has emerged as Fox's second most popular show this year, behind only Bill O'Reilly, despite not having the larger pool of potential viewers that prime time usually provides.
When Glenn Beck left Fox in 2011, Eric Bolling of the Fox Business Network pitched himself to Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.
"I sent the boss an email and said, `I'd kill for that 5 o'clock slot,'" Bolling said. "He said: `You and 500 others. Come up and talk to me at the end of the week.'"
Ailes already had another idea. He was mixing and matching personalities to see who might fit into a discussion format. There are actually seven who work on "The Five," allowing for substitutions. Cast members are Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former prosecutor who once worked at Court TV; veteran Fox analyst Juan Williams; Dana Perino, White House press secretary for President George W. Bush; campaign strategist Bob Beckel, who ran Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in 1984; Republican consultant Andrea Tantaros; libertarian satirist Greg Gutfeld, who hosts the wee-hours Fox show "Red Eye"; and Bolling.
They shot two test episodes and "the chemistry ... was undeniable," Tantaros said. "When they said it was temporary, I thought, `Wow, but this is really fun.'"
Publicly, "The Five" was billed as a summer replacement series for Beck. It probably would have remained so if it didn't click. Instead, the summer essentially served as a successful pilot for a network that does not introduce many new shows.
It is averaging 2 million viewers so far this year, up from just under 1.5 million during its first six months, according to the Nielsen Co. Beck brought new viewers to a time slot usually considered slow, and now "The Five" has a larger audience than Beck had during his final year at Fox.
During the loosely structured hour, the hosts take turns introducing subjects and steering the conversation. The idea is to recreate a dinner conversation, said Porter Berry, the show's executive producer. The set consists of five chairs and an oval table where, up close, you can see the scratches and masking tape.
Perino said she's met a woman who told her she cooks for her family more because she watches "The Five" while making dinner. There are viewing parties in suburban cul-de-sacs. Many fans watch while on the elliptical trainer.
Conversational shows aren't unique, as "The View" has demonstrated. "The Five" was timely in countering a cable news movement toward hours focused on a single host with a dominant personality.
"You can never write off a trend in television," said Scot Safon, chief executive of the HLN network. "They are always there to be reintroduced and re-embraced."
Serious news and politics dominate the show's first half. Later, the hosts try to lighten things up and in the process reveal more about themselves, such as when topics like relationship advice pop up. Guests or substitutes beyond the seven cast members do not appear.
"You want people to feel at home when they turn on the TV," Berry said.
Generally, "The Five" is like a dinner table conversation for a home flabbergasted that the country re-elected President Barack Obama. Williams rarely appears unless Beckel is absent. Although it's not consistent on every issue, Beckel often finds himself outnumbered 4-to-1 ideologically. That's a signature Ailes approach: An opposing point of view is not ignored, it's just overwhelmed.
A show that aired the day Obama outlined a strategy for dealing with global warming illustrated the dynamic. Gutfeld opened with a denunciation of "our incredible shrinking president" and his "hilarious" strategy to fight Mother Nature. "Every major press outlet has admitted world temperatures haven't changed in 16 years and that climate predictions were wildly exaggerated," he said.
Bolling backed him. The others nibbled around the edges. Tantaros ridiculed Obama for talking about the weather when there were more important things to do and called green projects a money-making scheme. Perino said Obama lacked guts for speaking at a friendly political setting at Georgetown University.
"If you guys think there's no global warming, then you really lost it," Beckel said.
He didn't press the matter, though, and even said he supported fracking, the natural gas extraction process opposed by many environmentalists.
Gutfeld is the show's alpha male.
"When they called me, they said, `We have this idea for a show and it's called `The One,'"' he said. "And it would just be me. And I said, `I don't know, maybe we should have some other people.' And they said, `No, it would just be you.' I think there are some good people at Fox."
He's joking. Still, it(s hard to escape the feeling that he wouldn't mind being the chosen one.
A day later, Gutfeld described the U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage as a "huge conservative victory" because gays could no longer be denied the tradition of marriage. While that decision – seen as a significant victory for gay and lesbians who want to get married – was the lead story on most newscasts, it appeared on the middle of "The Five." It came after discussions on Paula Deen, alleged wrongdoing at the IRS and New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner.
Perino used to ride the train to Washington at the end of the week with Beckel until they both got places in New York upon learning "The Five" would stick. She has set aside her political consulting work for "The Five."
"When you're a consultant, you're a little bit worried about giving your opinion," she said. "But when I realized it was going to be permanent, I was free to say whatever I wanted. That was a real freeing moment."
Beckel jokes about being the "crazy uncle" included in the dinner table conversation, and said producers never let him kick off the show because it would cut the audience in half. In a serious vein, he said there was some tension last fall when he was the only Obama supporter in a sea of Mitt Romney fans.
He seems to be having fun, though, enjoying the life of a TV star after many years in the political trenches.
"It took the sharp elbows out of some of the conversations you can hear in other places on cable news," he said. "We actually get along and laugh about things."
EDITOR'S NOTE – David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter (at)dbauder. His work can be found at http:bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder.