Bill Shine’s first job at Fox News was to break Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes of their bad habits. The two may be top cable news attractions today, but in 1996, Hannity and Colmes came to Fox News as accomplished veterans of talk radio. Unfortunately, good radio often makes bad television.
Shine’s initial task as the producer of Hannity & Colmes was simple: Put the two hosts in suits and makeup. But getting them camera-ready was another matter. They kept tapping pens on the desk and looking at the wrong camera; they were also unable to read a teleprompter. And forget about time cues.
“I was awful,” Hannity says, admitting he felt paralyzed by the camera for weeks.
The upside? With just 17 million subscribers at the time, the network wasn’t on anyone’s radar. “Back then, you could make a mistake,” Shine says. “No one was watching. It’s not like now. There were no bloggers.”
But fixing Hannity & Colmes was just the beginning for Shine. Today, he is the executive producer for Fox’s entire prime time schedule, in charge of the network’s three biggest shows: Hannity & Colmes, The O’Reilly Factor and On the Record With Greta Van Susteren. His top priority is ensuring the bookings, pace and topics stay hot. That means covering a wide range of stories, from abuses in Iraq’s oil-for-food program to the Scott Petersen murder trial.
“It’s 100 variables that make a good TV show,” says Shine. “It’s the emotion and the questions. It’s the order of the questions. It’s not just the temperament of the host.” Yet despite his success, Shine’s primary role is to keep the shows running smoothly. “[Fox News Chairman] Roger Ailes and others decide what’s in the time slot. Then they give it to me.”
From the beginning of his career, Shine was adept at getting his foot in the door. Raised on Long Island, N.Y., the son of a New York City police officer, Shine embarked on a job hunt after graduating from college in 1985, armed only with a communications degree from SUNY Oswego. Rejected from a low-level job at WLIG(TV), the only commercial station on Long Island, he wondered, “What if I start working for free?”
That philosophy landed him a job as a production assistant on the independent station’s magazine show and, eventually, a salary. Within a year, Shine was directing WLIG’s 10 p.m. newscast. There was still plenty of lower-level work for Shine to do, as the channel’s schedule was heavy with old movies and local sports. “Setting up lights in a bowling alley on Sunday morning will give you character,” he says. The station also lent him to Long Island’s public station, WLIW, which led Shine to move to the PBS affiliate full time, where he met his future wife, Darla Seneck.
By 1995, cable TV came calling.
Executives at a Manhattan-based startup network, Newstalk, were impressed by a debate show Seneck had worked on; they called while she and Shine were on their honeymoon to offer her a job. She tipped Shine to another post, producing and directing a late-night show on a fringe network.
Though owned by Multimedia, a TV- station group and syndicator of then daytime staple Donahue, Newstalk was fairly primitive. The late-night show regularly tapped New York City talk- radio hosts. Occasionally, it ventured beyond New York’s borders. Lacking any money for facilities or satellite hookups, Newstalk would have the talent phone in to New York for a couple of hours, air the audio and picture the host. Sometimes, hosts from different cities would call in and debate.
That’s how Shine first met Hannity.
The Atlanta-based talk-radio host periodically flew up to make the rounds of other New York-based talk shows and to fill in for Newstalk hosts. As Ailes was prepping to launch the channel in 1996, he offered Hannity a prime time slot. Hannity liked Shine and encouraged him to apply for a job.
Although the conservative Hannity and liberal Colmes were initially positioned to host a debate knock-off of CNN’s Crossfire, Shine says his aim was “to do everything the opposite. Crossfire was inside-the-Beltway; we would be outside. They shot against a black curtain; we went light. Their hosts threw shots at each other; ours didn’t.”
Hannity says Shine’s view of the show always matched his. “He had great control,” he says. “We are both fiercely competitive. We both wanted to win.” Their first guest: the little-known governor of Vermont, Dr. Howard Dean.
Today, Fox News is no longer the underdog fighting CNN. The network has trounced CNN in cable news, and Shine’s prime time slate has nearly doubled during the fall season, fueled by excitement over the election. But the network and Shine’s hosts in particular are often attacked by Democrats and some journalists. They charge Fox News with either slanting coverage to support the Bush administration or providing a home for shouting matches rather than insightful discussion. Shine bristles at such criticism.
“People who say that, in my opinion, don’t watch us or don’t watch us closely. Sean, Alan or O’Reilly? Some days, some segments, sure. But look at our daytime schedule and tell me that exists. Look at our White House group. Are you going to tell me they’re screamers?”