In recent days, another tranche of sponsors has made public statements about yanking commercials from “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” a mainstay of Fox News Channel’s heavily-watched primetime lineup. These advertisers are responding to outrage over the host’s recent comment about protests over the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police – an incident that has spurred a national referendum on the way people of various races and backgrounds are treated in America.
Black Lives Matter, Carlson said during his Monday broadcast, “may be a lot of things, this moment we’re living through, but it is definitely not about Black lives. Remember that when they come for you, and at this rate, they will.” Fox News said the “they” in Carlson’s comment referred to Democratic politicians. But the remark spurred intense negative reaction, and two activist groups, Sleeping Giants and Media Matters for America, called attention to it and flagged it on social media to some of Carlson’s recent sponsors.
Disney, Papa John’s and Poshmark are among the advertisers who said they would ensure their commercials would not appear in Carlson’s program in the future. In a Twitter post, the CEO of T-Mobile, Mike Sievert, even appeared to dismiss the idea that his company’s money would ever support Carlson’s program again: “Bye-bye, Tucker Carlson!”
But all the advertisers involved are spending money elsewhere on Fox News, the network said in a statement, noting that “all national ads and revenue from Carlson’s show have moved to other programs.” Some of the show’s regulars, like MyPillow, Fisher Investments and the Sandals resort, continued to run ads in the show this week.
When controversy swirls, TV advertisers can quickly generate goodwill and free themselves from unwanted scrutiny by issuing statements about how their commercials will never again support whatever content has offended the public. Rarely, however, is their money pulled back from the network that airs the program that stirred pushback.
In 2015, Discovery’s TLC faced backlash after revelations surfaced that Josh Duggar, the oldest child in the Duggar clan that was at the center of the popular series “19 Kids and Counting,” molested teenage girls more than a decade prior. General Mills, Yum Brands’ Pizza Hut, PepsiCo’s Pure Leaf Iced Tea, Choice Hotels and Crayola LLC all vowed they were cutting support of the program immediately. But none of them took back any of the ad money they had previously agreed to spend on TLC or other Discovery-owned outlets.
To be sure, no network wants to see advertising pulled from a single show. The logistical hurdles that result can be extreme. A TV outlet must re-schedule advertising flights in other parts of its schedule, where viewership may be smaller, requiring commercials to run more frequently. That in turn can squeeze out other clients, like direct-response advertisers who often run ads in daytime and late-night slots.
And a lack of ad support can indeed push a network to cancel a program. In 2011, retailing giant Lowe’s announced it would no longer support “All-American Muslim,” a TLC series that examined the lives of Muslim-American families living in Dearborn. Michigan. It was widely believed at the time that Lowe’s simply continued advertising across Discovery properties and likely “re-expressed” the ad buy it had with the media company. “Muslim” completed its first season, but was not picked up for a second. In 2009, about a dozen advertisers, including Procter & Gamble and Geico, pulled their commercials from Fox News’ late-afternoon show “Glenn Beck,” after the host called President Obama a racist and said he had a “deep-seated hatred” for white people. Beck’s show continued on Fox News until 2011, when anchor and network decided to part ways.
Yet pulling dollars can cause problems for sponsors too. Yank too much money out of an agreed-upon plan with a network, and guarantees for stable pricing may disappear.
Fox News has faced challenges in the past few years luring big national advertisers to both Carlson’s program as well as Laura Ingraham’s 10 p.m. show, “The Ingraham Angle,” in the wake of other remarks the hosts have made about topics ranging from immigrants to one of the victims of the school shootings in Parkland, Florida.
But the network’s parent company in recent months has seen new activity. In the company’s most recent fiscal quarter, ad revenue at Fox News grew by 15%, according to remarks made by Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch to investors, During the current pandemic, he added, advertisers from the fast food, tech, insurance and streaming sectors who wanted to reach larger audiences have moved dollars into Fox News programming, “mitigating most of the pullback in the categories that you would expect, such as auto, entertainment and retail.”
Some ad dollars have continued to flow to the network’s most controversial programs. In April, national ads put behind Fox News’ weekday primetime shows rose 65%, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending.
In the first quarter of 2020, Ingraham’s “Angle” took in about $18.6 million, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, compared to nearly $13.9 million in the year-earlier period. Carlson’s program took in $33.3 million in the first three months of 2020, according to Kantar, compared with nearly $25.8 million in the year-earlier . Ingraham’s program has been taking in between $1.3 million and $1.5 million per week in April and May, according to Kantar, while Carlson’s has captured between $1.4 million and $2 million.
All the cable-news outlets are facing headwinds in 2020. Despite the fact that an election year usually brings a surge of new ad dollars, the current pandemic has forced many advertisers to change plans.
Fox News Channel is seen taking in $1.16 billion in ad revenue in 2020, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence, down 7.6% from around $1.25 billion last year. Those figures are significantly higher than what rivals CNN or MSNBC are seen capturing. CNN is expected to win $619.2 million in 2020 advertising, according to Kagan, down 9% from the $680.5 million it took in last year. MSNBC, meanwhile, is expected to capture $672.4 million in 2020, down about 7.8% from the $728.9 million it received in 2019.
Fox News would no doubt love to get Apple, General Motors and Unilever to buy ads behind Tucker Carlson every night. Until advertisers do more than issue Twitter statements about where their ad dollars might go, however, its executives may only be forced to do so much before turning to other matters.