Fox News is planning a shake-up of its pitch to advertisers at the same time as multiple controversies over the tenor and content of its news coverage are sparking calls for a boycott that has already caused some advertisers to flee.
The changes, under a new marketing slogan, “America is watching”, are intended to highlight the channel’s news operations but come as advertisers are increasingly wary of repeated scandals around its opinion show hosts’ political bias.
In recent months, dozens of advertisers have pulled their ads from Fox shows, threatening to reduce Fox’s access to the lifeblood of advertising revenue, a trend that may accelerate in the wake of several recent, polarizing events.
Last week, a New Yorker story laid out how Fox’s close ties to the Trump administration had led some to accuse it of being a propaganda outlet for administration officials. That was followed by back-to-back incidents involving two of Fox’s most politically unyielding hosts, Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson.
Pirro, a former New York prosecutor, accused Ilhan Omar, the Democratic representative from Minnesota, of placing Sharia law above recognition of constitutional rights, a clearly offensive overreach that Fox News itself publicly condemned in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Fox host Tucker Carlson has been forced to respond to radio recordings he made to the shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge 10 years ago in which he described women as “extremely primitive” and defended the now convicted polygamous child sexual abuser Warren Jeffs.
The recordings, released by the progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America, led to a social media campaign urging Fox to dismiss Carlson and calling on advertisers to drop their support of the show.
According to Business Insider as many as 33 have already stopped advertising on Carlson’s show in recent months, though probably not all were reacting to Carlson’s views now or in the past or the protests against him.
In a statement, the Trinity College, Connecticut-educated Carlson posted on Twitter that he would not “express the usual ritual contrition” for “saying something naughty on a radio show more than a decade ago”. He invited critics to come on his show and take it up with him directly.
On his Monday evening broadcast, Carlson maintained a defiant stance. “Fox News is behind us, as they have been since the very first day,” he added, noting: “But we will never bow to the mob. Ever. No matter what.”
Advertisers that have so far pulled their ads from Fox include the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, which announced on Monday it would no longer advertise around Carlson’s evening program Tucker Carlson Tonight.
Pressure is mounting on Carlson’s remaining advertisers, including Mitsubishi and Allstate Insurance, to follow 33 others that have cut ties with the host since December, when he told viewers that immigrants make the country “poorer and dirtier”.
Those that have already walked include Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, CareerBuilder, TD Ameritrade, Just For Men, Outback Steakhouse and Peloton.
In some cases, advertisers have pulled their ads without announcing it, so Fox’s lost accounts could be greater.
On Monday evening, noted Variety, Carlson’s program featured longer commercials from the direct-response advertiser MyPillow, a regular Fox News client. Bayer AG, the pharmaceutical manufacturer, aired commercials for Claritin-D and One-a-Day vitamins.
However, Fox’s decision so far to stand by Pirro and Carlson follows a proven strategy for the station in which hosts must find a balance between stimulating and provoking the reactive political and social positions of Fox’s core viewership while not going so far as to alienate advertisers who seek them.
Advertisers began to walk away last summer after Laura Ingraham suggested detention facilities at the US-Mexico border were like “summer camps”.
Still, Fox News’ three top shows, hosted by Carlson, Sean Hannity and Ingraham, are among the most-watched programs in cable news. Carlson’s show averages 525,000 viewers a night aged between 25 and 54, figures that walk over ratings for CNN and MSNBC at the similar 8pm timeslot.
But the timing of the latest controversies is also critical for other reasons. In the coming months, 21st Century Fox will complete the sale of its studio and most cable assets to Disney.
At that point the company – known as Fox Corporation – will rely on Fox News, Fox Business Network, Fox Sports and Fox Broadcasting for revenue. Of those, Fox News accounted for $1.02bn in advertising revenue in 2018, a figure projected to climb to $1.07bn this year.
So far, despite the recent ad boycotts, 21st Century Fox says advertising revenue was up 6% over the last quarter. With TV entering its critical ad-selling sales session, Fox News will be certain to want to keep it that way – even if that means stirring controversy.
According to the Fox News consultant Jason Klarman, more than two-thirds of Fox’s audience is there for news itself, not opinion programming like Hannity and Carlson. “News is transcending its own genre and becoming popular culture, thanks in part to the Trump presidency,” Klarman told Variety.
• This article was amended on 13 March 2019 to show that Tucker Carlson attended Trinity College in Connecticut, not Trinity College in Dublin.