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With 'Roseanne' and Samantha Bee, TV advertisers confront a political minefield

With 'Roseanne' and Samantha Bee, TV advertisers confront a political minefield
Samantha Bee apologizing on June 6 for using a vulgar term to describe President Trump’s daughter Ivanka on her TBS show “Full Frontal.” (TBS)

Television advertising is caught in the crossfire of the country’s political battles.

When TV stars such as Roseanne Barr, Samantha Bee and Laura Ingraham get into trouble, advertisers retreat rather than risk having their brand names become collateral damage in the highly charged partisan atmosphere enveloping the media landscape.

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By the time a comedian or commentator is forced to apologize for a tweet or joke that goes too far, many sponsors want their commercials out before they can become the target of angry social media protests.

Such advertiser fallout recently hit Bee, who used a vulgar term to describe President Trump’s daughter Ivanka on the May 30 edition of her TBS show “Full Frontal.” Commercial time on the show has dropped 75% since the controversy, according to data from Kantar Media.

The loss of “Roseanne” is lowering the ABC television network’s expectations for its ad revenue for next season by more than $30 million, according to a person who is familiar with the data but was not authorized to disclose it.

Although networks have been able to mitigate the loss of ad dollars, the stakes are high for them. The TV industry is loath to lose any revenue at a time of declining viewership and rising competition for ad dollars from streaming services.

“Most clients have chosen to stay away from controversial topics and shift their money elsewhere,” said Carrie Drinkwater, executive director, investments for Mediahub, the ad-buying arm of Boston-based agency MullenLowe. “If the content is questionable or if the person’s behavior is reprehensible, you can’t put money into that content because you will [alienate] many people who you want to be your consumers.”

Threats of TV advertiser boycotts are not new. In the 1980s and ’90s, religious conservative groups such as the American Family Assn. used letter-writing campaigns to pressure companies to stay away from network programs they deemed too racy or unfit for family viewing. But social media now makes advertiser boycott threats fast-moving, highly public situations that require an immediate response, often prompting skittish companies to abandon offending programs.

“Most clients are not inherently courageous,” said one executive at a major media buying firm who was not authorized to comment publicly. “They don’t want to do anything to make things more challenging for themselves.”

Calls for advertiser pullouts have escalated amid rising passions over the policies and behavior of the Trump White House — and the growing willingness by activists on the left and the right to use new tools to assert their influence.

“We’ve become hyper-partisan in this country,” said David Cadden, professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. “Both sides are looking for every mechanism possible to weaponize any venue for them to inflict pain on the other side.”

Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, the liberal watchdog group that has organized protests against right-wing media outlets over the years, said pressuring advertisers is a quick way to deliver a political message in an age when citizens feel they can no longer depend on elected officials to respond to their issues.

“If you asked people how to exercise power 10 or 15 years ago, the answer would be call your member of Congress,” he said. “The problem in the current landscape is everybody has thrown up their hands. They either don’t have confidence or trust in the process, or don’t think what they do will make a bit of difference.”

Carusone cited how gun control advocates who could not get their representatives to act after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., successfully pressured companies to drop discounts given to National Rifle Assn. members.

Last year, Media Matters lobbied advertisers to drop former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly after reports that he and the cable network had paid out $13 million to settle sexual harassment claims made against him. Sponsor support disappeared and O’Reilly was fired in April 2017, though Fox News advertisers returned to the time period after Tucker Carlson took over.

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In most cases, networks will ride out controversies and boycott calls, as political hosts and comedians are hired to be provocative and advertisers’ skittishness comes with the territory. TBS declined to comment, but people familiar with the advertising situation at “Full Frontal” said they expect advertisers to gradually return. Commercial time per half-hour episode has fallen to 1¾ minutes, down from 6½ minutes before the miscue, according to Kantar Media.

But in the case of Barr, who posted a racist tweet in which she compared former President Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett to an ape, ABC acted fast before a protest could take hold and cause real financial damage.

The tweet by Barr, who had already caused a stir by spreading right-wing conspiracy theories online, surfaced just as Disney ABC was ready to negotiate with advertisers on the sale of $2 billion in advance ad time for the company’s 2018-19 program slate. A prolonged controversy over the fate of “Roseanne,” its most-watched program, could have stalled deal-making at a crucial time.

Few shows could deliver a larger audience — the series averaged about 22 million viewers last spring. ABC is in talks about a “Roseanne” spinoff without its star, but it would not be expected to draw the ratings of the original.

Networks have some flexibility. They are typically able to accommodate advertisers who want to move their dollars out of a show, rather than risk being subjected to the ire of activists and special interest groups.

“There are so many options you don’t feel you’re in a sink-or-swim situation by removing dollars from one program and putting them on another,” Drinkwater said.

Advertisers fled Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham’s show in late March after she delivered a tweet taunting Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor David Hogg over his college application rejections. Even though Ingraham apologized to him on Twitter, Hogg quickly disseminated a list of the network’s advertisers, many of whom abandoned her program and moved their commercials to other time slots on the network where they are likely to reach the same viewers.

Nonetheless, Fox News has stuck with Ingraham through the controversy — her nightly prime-time program “The Ingraham Angle” is still among the most watched on cable news. The program was carrying 15¼ minutes of national ad time before the boycott threat. In the weeks after the boycott, it was down to seven minutes per hour but has risen back up to 13 minutes as of last week.

Some of the loss has been offset by a higher ad rate for Ingraham’s program. Standard Media Index said the average cost for a 30-second spot on the Fox News show during the week of April 14 was $14,877, up from its first-quarter average of $9,943.

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Media Matters, which led the charge against O’Reilly, has also targeted Fox News star Sean Hannity, most recently after he publicly endorsed Roy Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Alabama who faced sexual misconduct allegations involving women and minors. While there have been occasional advertiser defections over the last year, none have put the most-watched show in cable news in jeopardy. Hannity has fought back against boycott efforts, calling them attacks on free speech, and has argued against targeting liberal commentators and comedians as well.

Marianne Gambelli, president of ad sales for Fox News, acknowledged some sponsors avoided the cable news network’s opinion programs when they came under fire but said others have come in to pick up the slack.

“There has been zero impact on our business,” Gambelli said in a statement. “Many advertisers have returned to our programming, with new advertisers opting in for our powerful lineup.”

The pressure being applied to outspoken Fox News hosts is what prompted Brian Maloney and several other former radio hosts with conservative views to form the Media Equality Project last year with the aim of targeting advertisers who support liberal hosts. Maloney said the organization’s goal is to “hold them accountable in the same way.”

With those battle lines drawn, Quinnipiac’s Cadden does not see the pressure on advertisers abating anytime soon. “It’s going to get worse,” he said. “Once people see that they have had some success, or others have had success, they will start engaging in this behavior.”

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