Facing mounting pressure from boycotts, Fox News took the unusual step of assuring advertisers that they should not pull their commercials out of its conservative opinion programs that have been targeted by liberal media watchdog groups.
“We know there is a lot of noise out there, but the voice of a few shouldn’t prevent you from marketing your brands to millions of consumers who actually buy your products and services,” Marianne Gambelli, president of advertising sales for Fox News said Wednesday at a presentation held in the network’s midtown Manhattan studios.
The top-rated cable news network invited sponsors and media buyers to its headquarters in order to tout its ratings success ahead of the upfront buying period when the bulk of ad time for the next TV season is sold. Fox News finished 2018 as the most-watched cable network for the third consecutive year.
In previous years, Fox News sales execs would meet privately with ad buyers and companies before the selling season. Executives said the presentation, planned several months ago, was part of an effort by the network to be more transparent under the new management team led by Fox News Chief Executive Suzanne Scott, who took the reins of the network in May 2018. The network also wanted to showcase its new state-of-the-art studio.
The scene on the sidewalk outside reflected the highly publicized anger that the political left has toward the conservative channel that critics and competitors call a propaganda arm of the White House. About 60 protesters led by the watchdog group Media Matters brandished signs that said “Fox News Is Toxic” and urged companies to take their business elsewhere.
The efforts to pressure advertisers to abandon Fox News over inflammatory comments by Tucker Carlson and other hosts has yet to have any significant financial effect as the network has shifted prime-time advertisers into programs in other time periods.
In 2018, Fox News took in a record $1.09 billion in ad revenue, an increase of 7.2% over the previous year according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. It has long been one of the most profitable units of parent company 21st Century Fox, which is about to sell most of its entertainment assets to Walt Disney Co. (Fox will retain ownership of Fox News, Fox Sports and the Fox Broadcasting network).
But the boycotts pose a threat to further revenue growth over the long term. According to Kantar Media data, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” saw its 2018 fourth quarter ad revenue total drop to $13.6 million, a whopping 45% decline from the previous year. The first organized effort to get sponsors to drop Carlson began in December after he said immigrants make the U.S. “poorer and dirtier and more divided.”
Many blue chip companies such as Lexus, Jaguar, Pacific Life and Pfizer, have pulled out of Carlson’s program, which now relies heavily on commercials from advertisers with 1-800 numbers who tend to seek out lower-priced ad time.
Carlson has been under fire for making misogynistic, homophobic and racially insensitive remarks on Florida radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s program. Media Matters has been posting audio clips of the remarks from 2006 to 2011 on social media during the last week, leading to two more advertisers — pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and bedding maker Sheex — dropping the program and a call from the Washington Post opinion page that he be fired.
But Fox News has stood by Carlson, who with an audience of 2.9 million viewers a night is often among the most watched programs on cable. Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of Fox News parent 21st Century Fox, has been a strong supporter of the conservative journalist, personally selecting him to become a full-time host in 2016. Murdoch is also said to abhor the idea of caving to left-wing critics of Fox News.
Fox News also remained behind prime-time host Laura Ingraham, who lost many of her sponsors last year after joking on Twitter about Parkland, Fla., high school shooting survivor David Hogg being rejected by several colleges.
Fox News host Sean Hannity has been similarly subject to advertiser pullouts over controversial positions, but many major advertisers have returned to his program.
Fox News can afford to be patient with advertiser fallout. More than half of its annual revenue comes from subscriber fees from cable and satellite companies carrying the channel.
But Gambelli, who took over ad sales at Fox News in 2017 after a successful run as a top sales executive at NBC, worked hard to assuage the Madison Avenue crowd, noting that the channel’s viewers are savvy enough to know that sponsoring a commentators’ program is not a statement supporting their views.
“They know that when an advertiser airs a commercial in a certain show they are doing it to market to them and not to take a political stand,” she said.
Gambelli and Scott emphasized to advertisers that more viewers are coming to the network for its news coverage than opinion. The channel’s audiences for special events such as the State of the Union, the midterm elections and the Kavanaugh hearings were higher than its competitors on cable and the broadcast networks.
“We have invested millions of dollars in news gathering and in our infrastructure over the last 2½ years,” said Scott, who played up the loyalty and engagement level of the channel’s audience. Fox News recently launched an ad campaign with the theme “America Is Watching,” to stress that it has the most cable news viewers in every region of the country, not just those where President Trump is popular.
The presentation included a panel that featured Fox News anchors Bret Baier, Harris Faulkner and Neil Cavuto, who often present a more skeptical view of the Trump administration than what the network offers in prime time or on the president’s favorite morning TV program “Fox and Friends.” They were joined by Ingraham, who was kinder and gentler than her sharp-elbowed TV persona, and Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo.
The protesters unhappy with Fox News said they see no distinction between the opinion shows and straight journalism of Fox News.
“Fox’s news side and opinion side are cogs in the same propaganda machine and if you sponsor one show on Fox you’re implicitly sponsoring any opinion on Fox News,” said Laura Keiter, a representative for Media Matters.
Conservative news outlets have countered that Media Matters has not held liberal hosts such as MSNBC’s Joy Reid or “The View” co-host Joy Behar to the same scrutiny for offensive comments they have made.