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Tucker Carlson will take Megyn Kelly's time slot at Fox News Channel

Fox News sent a strong signal that it has no intention of changing its conservative political stripes as Tucker Carlson was named to replace prime-time anchor Megyn Kelly.

Carlson will become the anchor of Fox News Channel’s 9 p.m. Eastern time slot after Kelly does her final edition of “The Kelly File” on Friday. Kelly is leaving to join NBC News.

The move means Fox is fortifying its block of politically right-leaning commentary programs in prime time, as Carlson will fill the hour between Sean Hannity and the network's top-rated anchor Bill O’Reilly.

Kelly’s program, while not completely without opinion, had been more news driven than the two shows surrounding her. She was the sole prime-time anchor who did critical reporting on President-elect Donald Trump, which often drew scornful criticism from many Fox News viewers on social media and in emails to the network.

Carlson, 47, is a personal favorite of 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch, who has been running Fox News since longtime Chairman Roger Ailes departed in July after several women — including Kelly — accused him of sexual harassment. He denied the allegations.

Murdoch chose Carlson to replace longtime anchor Greta Van Susteren in the 7 p.m Eastern hour after she left the network over contract issues in September. Van Susteren has moved to MSNBC, where she will have a nightly show starting Jan. 9.

After the departure of Ailes, a former media advisor to Republican politicians, there was speculation in TV news industry circles that Fox News might not court conservative viewers as aggressively going forward.

But Trump’s stunning White House victory has given the network a ratings lift, especially at the 10 p.m. Eastern time slot, where Hannity is the newly elected president’s biggest booster. The addition of Carlson is aimed at building on that success, though it leaves Fox without a female anchor during the key weeknight prime-time hours.

Murdoch wanted to keep Kelly — offering her upward of $20 million a year to stay at Fox -- as she was a home grown on-air star who helped to make Fox the top-rated cable network in 2016.

But much of the positive press she generated was largely due to her willingness to challenge right-wing guests and orthodoxy. She became widely known beyond the Fox News audience after her tough questioning of Trump in the first Republican primary debate in August 2015. That earned her glamorous magazine cover shoots, but also some harsh backlash from Trump supporters.

By turning to Carlson as a replacement for Kelly, Fox News is creating a lineup that is seamless in its political appeal and less likely to alienate the network’s core audience. MSNBC has a similar formula with its prime-time lineup of liberal commentators Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.

Based on his ratings performance in the 7 p.m. Eastern hour that he took over in November, Carlson is seen as a surefire way to maintain or even increase the number of viewers who had been watching Kelly’s program.

“In less than two months, Tucker has taken cable by storm with his spirited interviews and consistently strong performance,” Murdoch said in a statement. “Viewers have overwhelmingly responded to the show and we look forward to him being a part of Fox News’ powerful prime-time lineup.”

In December, Carlson averaged 2.87 million viewers in the hour, making him the second-most-watched personality on Fox News after O’Reilly. He improved the ratings in the hour by 23%.

But Carlson will face stiffer competition at 9 p.m Eastern time slot where Kelly was the second-most-popular host on Fox News, averaging 2.7 million viewers in 2016. The key will be his ability to hold the strong lead-in he gets from “The O’Reilly Factor.”

A provocative commentator, Carlson has gained attention with some of his confrontations with liberal guests on his program. His recent throw-down with a Teen Vogue writer over her tweet about Ivanka Trump after the president-elect’s daughter was confronted by hecklers on a commercial flight. The exchange was heavily circulated online after it aired.

Carlson is a veteran of cable news, having previously held hosting jobs on CNN and MSNBC. He founded the conservative site the Daily Caller and was co-host of the CNN debate program “Crossfire,” on which  in 2004 comedian Jon Stewart famously said that the show was “hurting America,” a harsh critique that ultimately led to its demise.

Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who first put Carlson on TV, said he hopes the commentator will bring Fox News the more thoughtful brand of conservative thought he is known for and not just be a cheerleader for Trump.

“He brings a very powerful and energetic combination of wit and charm and acerbic conservative zeal to his television,” said Sesno, now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “He’s very smart and very quick, but I hope he realizes he has an opportunity to navigate differently. He can still be a conservative who is committed and clever, but I hope not incendiary.”

Starting Jan. 19, Carlson’s 7 p.m. Eastern time slot will be filled by a news program with Martha MacCallum called “The First 100 Days” that will focus on the early months of the Trump presidency. There is no decision on what will air in the hour after the actual 100 days is up.

MacCallum, 52, who has been with Fox News since 2004, will also take Kelly’s spot in special event coverage. She will join anchor Bret Baier in covering Trump’s inauguration Jan. 20.

Carlson’s program will be based in Washington; “The First 100 Days” will come out of New York.

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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UPDATES:

4:20 p.m.:This article was updated throughout with analysis of Tucker Carlson’s appointment and what it means for Fox News.

This article was originally published at 8:35 a.m.

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