Tucker Carlson's Black Lives Matter remarks alienate Fox News advertisers

Stephen Battaglio
Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson on the set of his program in New York on Oct. 1, 2018.  (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson is causing static with the network's advertisers again.

The conservative-leaning news channel has seen several companies say they will no longer run their commercials in the top-rated prime-time program "Tucker Carlson Tonight" due to the host's recent comments on Black Lives Matter, the movement denouncing police brutality and racial bias that has gained substantial support among protesters nationwide in recent weeks following the death of George Floyd.

While much of the country and the media have taken a sympathetic view of the demonstrations spurred by the video of Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died on a Minneapolis street with his neck under the knee of a police officer, Carlson has been a harsh skeptic.

Carlson has criticized Republican politicians who have expressed support or understanding of the protests since they began at the end of May. He also said it was "soulless" and "craven" to support Black Lives Matter and ran a scroll of celebrities who offered financial help to the cause in front of video of property set ablaze during the uprisings.

But the host, a reliably contrarian conservative voice on the network that gets the attention of President Trump, crossed a line with advertisers when he said the movement "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 has issued a clarification of the remarks, saying the "they" referred to Democratic politicians.

After the remarks were highlighted by Media Matters and Sleeping Giants, the liberal watchdog groups that often target Fox News comments they deem inflammatory, five sponsors publicly stated they will no longer run in Carlson's program. One of them, telecom company T-Mobile, stated its intention in a tweet from its Chief Executive Mike Sievert, who wrote "Bye-Bye Tucker."

The others who distanced themselves are restaurant chain Papa John's, the Walt Disney Co., SmileDirect Club and furniture maker Vari.

Advertisers have fled Carlson's show in the past. They bolted in 2018 after he said immigrants make the "country poorer and dirtier," and in 2019 when he suggested that white supremacy in the United States is a hoax.

Most of the ads on "Tucker Carlson Tonight" in recent years have been from direct-response advertisers who solicit customers through 1-800 phone numbers or websites, such as MyPillow.com. Such marketers tend to be less particular about the content of the programs they run in.

But occasionally big-brand names show up in Carlson's program when companies use outside firms to make advertising buys based on audience data and don't take program content into consideration. Walt Disney Co. has said it was a third-party company that made the buy on Carlson's program to promote ABC network shows.

Disney did not comment on the matter. But a person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the recent ad buy was inadvertent and that the company has chosen not to run commercials on Carlson’s program for several years.

In response to the nation's reaction to Floyd, Disney has committed $5 million in contributions to social justice organizations.

“The killing of George Floyd has forced our nation to once again confront the long history of injustice that Black people in America have suffered, and it is critical that we stand together, speak out, and do everything in our power to ensure that acts of racism and violence are never tolerated,” Bob Chapek, chief executive of Disney, said in a statement when the donation was announced last week.

The latest exodus of advertisers is not expected to change Carlson's status on the channel, as the network has stood by him in the past and he is a personal favorite of Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch.

Carlson is also a major draw for Fox News Channel. In May, "Tucker Carlson Tonight" averaged 4.19 million viewers according to Nielsen, making it the second most-watched cable news program behind Fox's "Hannity," with 4.23 million.

Even with weak advertiser support, "Tucker Carlson Tonight" is valuable in driving viewers into the rest of the Fox News lineup. Fox News also gets more than half of its revenue from fees it gets from cable and satellite companies that carry the channel, lessening its dependence on advertising.

Fox News has said the dollars that come out of Carlson's show are spent on ads elsewhere in the network's lineup. According to Standard Media Index, Fox News saw its weekday prime-time ad revenue grow 65% year-to-year in April, despite a curb in spending for many advertisers due to the economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Carlson was the first Fox News commentator to warn that the pandemic was a serious health threat to the nation while others had played down the crisis suggesting it was being used as a political weapon against Trump.