Fox News Channel is using ratings to launch a counterattack against fired anchor Gretchen Carlson, who is suing the network’s chief executive, Roger Ailes, for sexual harassment.
Carlson’s complaint, filed this week in Superior Court in New Jersey, accused Ailes, chairman and chief executive of Fox News, of undermining the anchor’s career at the channel because she complained of a hostile work environment. The suit also alleges that Ailes made sexual advances that were rebuffed by Carlson and that he directed innuendo-filled comments toward her.
Citing Nielsen data, Fox News pointed out that “The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson” has delivered the lowest number of viewers in the 25-to-54 age group of any program on the channel since the first quarter of 2014, excluding its overnight shows. Advertisers seek to reach 25 to 54 year olds when they buy commercials on news programs.
Fox News also cited data that showed ratings improvement on “Fox and Friends” after Carlson was replaced on the program in 2013. Although ratings are influenced by events in the news, viewing of “Fox and Friends” went up 16% in the 25-to-54 demographic in the 15 weeks after she was replaced by Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
Attorneys for Carlson said the claim that she was not renewed for rating reasons is “demonstrably false.”
In a statement, Carlson’s attorneys, Nancy Erika Smith and Martin Hyman, said that after she was removed from her co-host slot on “Fox and Friends,” the top-rated morning program in cable news, she was given “a challenging time slot and denied support and promotion. Despite this, she succeeded and was the number one cable news show in her time slot in total viewers.”
Carlson’s ratings rose in her last month on Fox News, as viewing of cable news has increased across the board because of intense interest in the presidential campaign.
From May 30 through June 23, Carlson’s program averaged 1.22 million viewers, compared with 789,000 for her 2 p.m. Eastern time competition, “CNN Newsroom.” But CNN did lead in the 25-to-54 demographic with 190,000 viewers compared with 186,000 for Carlson. Carlson’s program was up 25% from June 2015, while CNN gained 26%.
As for Ailes’ denial of the allegations, Smith and Hyman said in a statement, “We challenge him to deny, under oath, that he made the statements attributed to him in the complaint.”
A public relations battle will play out in the meantime. Privately, a Fox News executive noted that Carlson sent a thank you note to Ailes after the Sept. 16 meeting in which he is alleged to have said to her, “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.”
Smith confirmed that the note was sent. Carlson “sent thank you notes after every meeting,” she said. “She was being polite and trying to keep her job. The real question is ‘Does Ailes refute that he suggested they should have had a sexual relationship?’”
Ailes has denied making the statements Carlson attributes to him in the complaint.