Advertiser boycott grows

NBC News cancelled “Imus in the Morning” and CBS Radio left the door open to do the same amid a growing boycott of the shock jock by Madison Avenue.

NBC News made the call late Wednesday, days after suspending Don Imus for two weeks after racially charged comments about the Rutgers U. women’s basketball team, as advertisers walked en masse from the increasingly radioactive host.

NBC News president Steve Capus said the decision to cancel MSNBC’s simulcast of the show was made after listening to NBC employees and considering Imus’ history of off-color banter.

“There have been any number of other comments that have been enormously hurtful to far too many people,” Capus said, in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “My feeling is that there can’t … that there should not be a place for that on MSNBC.”

Move comes as the furor over Imus’ remarks gathered steam and, one by one, the show’s top advertisers walked away in what started to look like a full-fledged Madison Avenue boycott.

Five of Imus’ top advertisers — General Motors, American Express, Sprint Nextel, TD Waterhouse and GlaxoSmithKline — exited on Wednesday, joining Staples, P&G and Bigelow Tea Co. in pulling their spots from the show.

Now the question is whether CBS Radio will follow NBC’s move, as it did with the initial two-week suspension. In a statement, CBS Radio said it will “continue to speak with all concerned parties and monitor the situation closely.”

CBS Corp. board member Bruce Gordon said that topper Leslie Moonves was using the two-week period to deliberate that very question.

“I applaud CBS for being thoughtful,” said Gordon, a former president of the NAACP, to CNN. “I believe Les Moonves is principled, he will think this through, and the right decision will be made.”

Moonves and Imus met in person Wednesday morning; a spokesman would not elaborate on what was discussed.

In the wake of Imus’ comments, several prominent NBC News personalities publicly asked for Imus to step down, including “Today” weatherman Al Roker and correspondent Ron Allen, and Capus said the opinions of hundreds of staffers weighed heavily on his decision.

“Many of them were people who have worked for NBC News for decades, people who have put their lives on the line covering wars and things like that,” Capus said. “When you listen to the passion of the people who came to that conclusion … it was the only decision we could reach.”

Increasingly, Madison Avenue was coming to the same conclusion as staying with Imus had become a riskier proposition than standing on the sidelines. “If the FCC won’t adjudicate this, the marketplace is going to speak,” said one media buyer.

Several advertisers said they would continue to sponsor Imus’ charitable work, including the Imus Ranch for children suffering from cancer. Others indicated the pullout need not be permanent.

“This is a very fluid situation, and we’ll just continue to monitor it as it goes forward when he returns to the air,” said GM spokeswoman Ryndee Carney.

The growing advertiser boycott put NBC and CBS in an increasingly difficult spot. Imus recently signed a five-year, $10 million-per-year extension to his deal, but the earning potential of both the syndicated radio show and the MSNBC simulcast are rapidly diminishing.

But given Imus’ significant salary, the financial impact on MSNBC and CBS Radio are limited. For CBS, the show earns $15 million in profit from advertising and syndication, a drop in the bucket for a radio division that posted nearly $2 billion in sales in 2006.

MSNBC pays $4 million to license Imus against about $8.5 million in ad revenue, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Capus said he realized that his decision would be interpreted by some as a reaction to the advertiser pullout and out of concern for the MSNBC brand.

“I understand people are going to view it that way,” he said. “But I ask you, what price do you put on your reputation?”

Meanwhile, the decision forces MSNBC to consider what it will do without Don Imus.

The simulcast been a fixture on the network since its 1996 inception in a programming move meant to prevent any audience overlap with NBC’s “Today.”

But it also absolved the net from having to create expensive programming for the ayem slot.

While CNN and Fox News spend millions to create their “American Morning” and “Fox & Friends” franchises, MSNBC has always done its mornings on the cheap, and Imus had recently begun challenging CNN in the ratings.

MSNBC could recruit another radio host. CNN’s Headline News did that when it created a primetime show around radio host Glenn Beck.

MSNBC is scheduled to move from Secaucus, N.J., to 30 Rock in the fall and will merge a lot of functions with those of NBC News. At the same time, NBC News will begin producing a fourth hour of “Today” in a bid to extend the brand to 11 a.m.

MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines said the net will air varied news programming while it develops an alternative to Imus.

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