NEW YORK — It was just after 7 a.m. on the set of "Fox & Friends," but the studio already looked like the scene of a college all-nighter. Papers and blue index cards littered the couch next to the three co-hosts, and the mood resembled the giddy intensity produced by sleeplessness and large doses of caffeine.
Co-host Brian Kilmeade, discussing Sen. John McCain's debate performance, noted that he might be "a man of substance with a career and a resume, but he is not a master -- a master debater."
Kilmeade broke into a grin as he realized how close he came to accidentally saying something else.
"We just gave the people who are reading the subtitles quite a shock," said co-host Steve Doocy, shaking with laughter.
"Master. Debater," Kilmeade repeated carefully, trying not to crack up.
The loose atmosphere is the signature characteristic of "Fox & Friends," the freewheeling program on Fox News that dominates the morning competition on cable. The hosts' political observations and pungent personal comments have stirred controversy, drawing detractors even as they have raised the show's profile.
"Here you have an ability to do stuff, and then they can always rein you in," Kilmeade said after the program. "But I know I'm not going to get reprimanded."
"Fox & Friends" has attracted more than 1.2 million viewers on average so far this month, topping the combined viewership of CNN's "American Morning" and MSNBC's "Morning Joe." And in 16 major local markets, including Los Angeles, the cable program gets a bigger audience than CBS' "The Early Show," even though it airs from 3 to 6 a.m. on the West Coast.
Co-host Gretchen Carlson, who co-anchored the Saturday edition of "The Early Show" before joining Fox News, said that producers there would cut her off when she tried to improvise.
Now, "when we make a mistake reading the news headlines, whereas at a [broadcast] network you'd probably get fired, instead, we're like, 'Eh, we screwed up,' " she said. "And I think that's disarming."
Essentially three hours of ad-libbed banter, "Fox & Friends" has generated a rich supply of YouTube moments, especially during the charged political season.
Often, it's the guests who are unpredictable: On Friday, liberal radio host Ed Schultz walked off the air in exasperation after conservative radio host Steve Malzberg interrupted his defense of Sen. Barack Obama's tax cut plan.
But the "Fox & Friends" hosts have also produced controversy on their own. Last year, they triggered a rare public admonishment from network executives after discussing an article in a conservative magazine that claimed Obama had attended a madrassa in Indonesia as a child.
The report was quickly discredited and John Moody, Fox News' executive vice president of news editorial, said at the time that they should not have reported the piece without confirming its accuracy.
For many Democrats, the incident cemented the program's right-leaning reputation, a charge the hosts reject.
"You have to remember that the mainstream media is not fair and balanced," said Carlson, who, like her co-hosts, said she's a political independent. "I've worked there. And so we maybe look a little different because we're talking about issues that nobody else is."
Lately, "Fox & Friends" has focused on Obama's association with onetime antigovernment radical William Ayers and questionable voter registrations by the community group ACORN, which has endorsed Obama. Both stories dominated the program during the last week, underscored by on-screen captions such as "Stealing the Election? McCain Calls Obama Out Over ACORN" and "Up in the Ayers: Will Mac Mention Obama Terror Ties?"
"The notion of 'Fox & Friends' being 'fair and balanced' is about as credible as fried chicken being low-fat," said Stephanie Cutter, chief of staff to Michelle Obama, after a tense on-air exchange with the hosts Thursday about Obama and ACORN.
The anchors insist they're tough on both presidential candidates. After interviewing Cutter, they noted, they asked McCain campaign manager Rick Davis about McCain's praise for ACORN in 2006.
"People know that we're going to cover both points of view," Carlson said.
Sometimes, the tone gets personal.
In July, Doocy disparaged a New York Times reporter who had written an article about Fox News' ratings that he called "a hit piece." The screen displayed digitally altered photos of reporter Jacques Steinberg and his editor, Steven Reddicliffe, that their outraged colleagues said resembled anti-Semitic caricatures.
The hosts disputed that notion, adding that their executive producer at that time, David Brown, is Jewish.
Doocy called the segment "our chance to have a little fun, goof on 'em." When asked if he felt in retrospect whether it was a good idea, he replied: "It got their attention."
At the time, Moody explained the bit by calling the program "an entertainment show that does some news," adding: "Some of the humor gets edgy."