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Fox News courts advertisers after brands flee Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham

Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Facing mounting pressure from boycotts, Fox News took the unusual step of assuring advertisers that they should not pull their commercials out of its conservative opinion programs that have been targeted by liberal media watchdog groups.

"We know there is a lot of noise out there, but the voice of a few shouldn't prevent you from marketing your brands to millions of consumers who actually buy your products and services," Marianne Gambelli, president of advertising sales for Fox News said Wednesday at a presentation held in the network's midtown Manhattan studios.

The top-rated cable news network invited sponsors and media buyers to its headquarters in order to tout its ratings success ahead of the upfront buying period when the bulk of ad time for the next TV season is sold. Fox News finished 2018 as the most-watched cable network for the third consecutive year.

In previous years, Fox News sales execs would meet privately with ad buyers and companies before the selling season. Executives said the presentation, planned several months ago, was part of an effort by the network to be more transparent under the new management team led by Fox News Chief Executive Suzanne Scott, who took the reins of the network in May 2018. The network also wanted to showcase its new state-of-the-art studio.

The scene on the sidewalk outside reflected the highly publicized anger that the political left has toward the conservative channel that critics and competitors call a propaganda arm of the White House. About 60 protesters led by the watchdog group Media Matters brandished signs that said "Fox News Is Toxic" and urged companies to take their business elsewhere.

The efforts to pressure advertisers to abandon Fox News over inflammatory comments by Tucker Carlson and other hosts has yet to have any significant financial effect as the network has shifted prime-time advertisers into programs in other time periods.

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In 2018, Fox News took in a record $1.09 billion in ad revenue, an increase of 7.2 percent over the previous year according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. It has long been one of the most profitable units of parent company 21st Century Fox, which is about to sell most of its entertainment assets to Walt Disney Co. (Fox will retain ownership of Fox News, Fox Sports and the Fox Broadcasting network).

But the boycotts pose a threat to further revenue growth over the long term. According to Kantar Media data, "Tucker Carlson Tonight" saw its 2018 fourth quarter ad revenue total drop to $13.6 million, a whopping 45 percent decline from the previous year. The first organized effort to get sponsors to drop Carlson began in December after he said immigrants make the U.S. "poorer and dirtier and more divided."

Many blue chip companies such as Lexus, Jaguar, Pacific Life and Pfizer, have pulled out of Carlson's program, which now relies heavily on commercials from advertisers with 1-800 numbers who tend to seek out lower-priced ad time.

Carlson has been under fire for making misogynistic, homophobic and racially insensitive remarks on Florida radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge's program. Media Matters has been posting audio clips of the remarks from 2006 to 2011 on social media during the last week, leading to two more advertisers -- pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and bedding maker Sheex -- dropping the program and a call from the Washington Post opinion page that he be fired.

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