Fox & Friends, which airs on Fox News Channel from 7 to 9 a.m. EDT, stands apart from CNN's American Morning and the broadcast networks' breakfast fare: NBC's Today, ABC's Good Morning America and CBS' also-ran Early Show.

Where the competition offers full-blown television, Fox & Friends (search) opts for something else: news-talk radio with pictures. (Mind you, a much different affair than MSNBC's simulcast of Imus in the Morning, which is literally watching radio.)

For Fox & Friends, video-enhanced drive-time radio is a hit. Its ratings sizzle like bacon in the skillet.

The first quarter of 2003, its audience measured 1.15 million viewers and, in April, reflecting a boost from Iraq war coverage, reached nearly 2.3 million — compared to 759,000 a year ago.

It beats American Morning (search) (although this CNN rival has enjoyed significant growth since premiering in January 2002, with 1.7 million viewers in April).

Meanwhile, Fox & Friends has done the unthinkable by nipping at the heels of The Early Show, even beating it two recent weeks by some 100,000 viewers — this, despite Fox News Channel being available in only 75 percent of the TV homes that receive CBS, and despite Fox & Friends airing on the West Coast from 4 to 6 a.m.

With a format similar to other morning shows, Fox & Friends takes full advantage of Fox News Channel's far-flung correspondents for dispatches. There are interviews and features. Lauren Green reads the headlines.

But the key to Fox & Friends is its radiolike "zoo crew" — the three outspoken co-hosts who preside from their adjoining wing chairs in the tiny streetside studio at the network's Manhattan headquarters.

Other morning shows have always relied on at least one established star on the panel (Bryant Gumbel, Diane Sawyer or Paula Zahn, just departed from American Morning for CNN's prime time). But Fox & Friends rose from its own obscurity with three co-equal no-names who are now as big as it is:

— Brian Kilmeade (search), the sturdy but boyish New York guy, whose background is sportscasting.

— E.D. Hill (search), the brassy Texas gal who was a contributing reporter on Good Morning America.

— Steve Doocy (search), a veteran of the defunct America's Talking network (created by Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes), who, Kansas-born and gangly, resembles a grown-up, well-groomed Shaggy, the beatnik pal of cartoon dog Scooby-Doo.

It's this spirited threesome who lay the foundation for each weekday's show with their seamless, finish-each-other's-sentence brand of reporting, opinion, hearsay, conjecture and waggery.

Quite unlike what you find on, say, American Morning.

"See that guy on CNN," says Doocy, pointing to a TV screen after a recent Fox & Friends broadcast. "He's reading a little lead-in to a story that he may or may not know much about. We do the news and talk about the news, so we have to actually know about the news."

At least as much as everything else. On Fox & Friends, it's no stretch at all for a discussion of the high cost of sodding Hill's front yard to shift into an update on a political turf battle.

"When I came on," recalls Hill, "the boss said, 'Just be yourself.' Everywhere else, you were supposed to fit into a world that they had selected you for, playing the role they wanted you to play. It was liberating."

"The hosts on a lot of other shows are all at the same pitch," says Doocy. "We are all different people."

Different, perhaps. But presenting a unified front like none other in morning TV.

For starters, the hosts radiate Team Fox esprit de corps, and not just for their network: They voice pride that X2: X-Men United is a box-office smash, reminding viewers it's a Fox film.

Even with all the freewheeling chatter on Fox & Friends, there is little dissent. The viewer can count on a reassuring cheers-and-jeers consensus, a comfortable polarity of boosting and bashing.

Major turn-ons: The Iraq War effort, the Bush administration.

A few current turn-offs: Hans Blix, the Dixie Chicks, France and its fellow "Axis of Weasel" countries — and Dan Rather.

"I don't trust Rather," Hill said on Thursday's show as the conversation turned to the CBS anchorman. "I think he's got a VERY slanted view, and I think that that taints everything I hear on his newscast."

Kilmeade blasted the CBS anchorman's recent interview with Saddam Hussein as timid, and Doocy volunteered, "I watch Dan Rather on occasion just to see if that's gonna be the day he snaps."

Laughs all around. Then it was time for more headlines.