Tucker Carlson Wants to Return to TV Before 2025. Will Fox Let Him?

Tucker Carlson is making it clear to people close to him that he would like to be back on the air somewhere soon. But he first needs Fox News to agree to a deal that would allow him to work elsewhere, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions, leaving it unclear whether he will be able to start a new chapter in his media career before his current contract expires in January 2025.

Since Mr. Carlson was taken off the air by Fox News last week, his lawyers have been in touch with Fox to negotiate an agreement to set the terms of his departure. And he has been the subject of unofficial courting by right-wing media outlets who’ve let it be known they would hire him if they could.

But a swirl of embarrassing disclosures about the prime time host’s private remarks have cast a shadow over those discussions.

Some of Mr. Carlson’s allies have accused the network of being behind the disclosures. Fox insists that it doesn’t like the leaks any more than Mr. Carlson does and is considering taking legal action to stop them.

On early Friday, lawyers for Fox sent a cease-and-desist letter to Media Matters for America, a longtime Fox critic that recently published leaked, behind-the-scenes video from Mr. Carlson’s set. That footage has shown Mr. Carlson making sexist and boorish statements and fuming with hatred toward the lawyer who questioned him in a 10-hour deposition that was part of the billion-dollar defamation suit filed against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems.

In its letter, Fox lawyers said that the videos had been “unlawfully obtained.”

“That unaired footage is Fox’s confidential intellectual property,” the letter said. “Fox did not consent to its distribution or publication; and Fox does not consent to its further distribution or publication.”

Those leaks, and a New York Times report that a previously undisclosed text from Mr. Carlson expressing racist views caused high-level alarm inside the company ahead of the Dominion trial — where it threatened to inflame a jury — have complicated the efforts of both Fox and Mr. Carlson to put this messy episode behind them.

So far, Mr. Carlson has said nothing publicly since last week, except for a short video statement he posted on Twitter. Through a representative, he declined to comment for this article.

But some of his allies in conservative media have — without offering proof — blamed Fox for trying to tarnish the reputation of its former star host, saying the network is looking to hamstring his career prospects.

“Fox News teaming up with Media Matters to smear Tucker Carlson is one of the slimiest betrayals I’ve ever seen,” Matt Walsh, a podcaster for the conservative Daily Wire, wrote this week.

Others found the accusations a bit of a stretch. “The idea that Fox is (somehow) colluding with its mortal enemy,” wrote Mike Davis, a conservative legal strategist, “to trash Tucker is truly a tin-foil hat, utterly stupid conspiracy theory.”

A spokesman for Fox said the network had no further comment beyond its statement last week announcing that the network and Mr. Carlson had parted ways.

Getting back to work before his contract expires is not a certainty for Mr. Carlson. Like many other television hosts, he has a contract that contains language — known in the media industry as “pay or play” — that allows networks to keep their biggest stars from working for their rivals as long as they are under contract, according to a person with knowledge of his deal.

Anchors like Mr. Carlson usually also have terms in their contracts that prevent them from making unsanctioned media appearances, said Andy Lee, an entertainment lawyer with Foley & Lardner, which is not involved in the negotiations. If Mr. Carlson’s contract has those provisions, they could hamper any efforts he might make to play a role as a commentator in the 2024 presidential election.

“There are circumstances where pay-or-play provisions can be challenged, but networks and studios certainly view them as being relatively ironclad,” Mr. Lee said.

It is possible that Fox would continue to pay out Mr. Carlson’s contract in full to keep him away as a competitor. Or Mr. Carlson and Fox News could work out a separation agreement that allowed the former Fox host to get back on the air before his contract expires. That could require him to forfeit millions of dollars he is owed by the network.

Yet it may be in the interests of both parties to resolve the situation amicably. Mr. Carlson would be able to build a business outside Fox. And Fox would be spared the threat of what a disgruntled Mr. Carlson might do to drive a wedge between his loyal followers and Fox News. Already, the ratings for Mr. Carlson’s old 8 p.m. time slot have dropped significantly. And some of his fans have raised the possibility of a boycott of the network.

Mr. Carlson has turned to the lawyer Bryan Freedman to help negotiate a settlement. Mr. Freedman has handled departure deals for numerous TV stars and is well known for his aggressive negotiation tactics.

An agreement that allows Mr. Carlson to appear on a rival news network like Newsmax would be a considerable concession from Fox. In any agreement, Fox would most likely insist on prohibiting Mr. Carlson from joining a cable news competitor, said a person familiar with how negotiations with big Fox stars have unfolded in the past.

Any number of opportunities are available to Mr. Carlson if he and Fox News agree to terms releasing him from his contract early. Some former Fox News hosts, such as Megyn Kelly, have taken an entrepreneurial path, starting their own companies to produce radio shows and podcasts. Others, like the former “O’Reilly Factor” host Bill O’Reilly, have appeared on smaller networks like The First TV, an upstart founded by Red Seat Ventures.

News of Mr. Carlson’s breakup with Fox immediately stoked speculation in right-wing media circles about his next steps. Mr. Carlson’s nightly perch on Fox News has made him a power broker and an opinion-shaper in the Republican Party. That would make him a serious get for the conservative media companies that have pitched themselves as alternatives to the mainstream press — and to Fox News, the right-wing media behemoth.

One associate of Mr. Carlson’s said that Rumble, a right-wing media company based in Canada, would be a likely suitor. The Daily Wire, a media start-up co-founded by the conservative commenter Ben Shapiro, is interested in exploring a deal with Mr. Carlson, as are the conservative TV networks Newsmax and One America News, according to three people familiar with their interest.

Fox News, for its part, is rotating hosts in Mr. Carlson’s old time-slot under the “Fox News Tonight” banner for the foreseeable future. So far, hosts have included Brian Kilmeade, who usually co-hosts the network’s popular “Fox and Friends” morning show, and Lawrence Jones, another host at the network.

Fox News, the longtime king of cable news ratings, has suffered an audience dip in Mr. Carlson’s hour after his abrupt departure. Fox’s audience in that time slot on some nights fell behind both CNN’s and MSNBC’s over the last week among adults ages 25-54, a rare loss in that demographic, which is coveted by advertisers.

For Mr. Carlson, there’s more at stake than a paycheck, Mr. Lee said. Many TV personalities become less relevant the longer they stay off the air, hurting their earning potential.

“It’s not always just a question of money, because being off the air for an extended period can have an adverse effect on a career,” Mr. Lee said.

Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.

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