It used to be that the economics of television were pretty straightforward: broadcasters sold advertising to sponsors, who were willing to pay more to hawk their wares on the highest-rated programs.
The biggest shows and stars attracted the classiest advertisers — luxury car makers, popular consumer products, brokerages and banks.
Things have obviously changed radically, or how else could one explain the phenomenon of Tucker Carlson?
Carlson is the undisputed star of Fox News Channel. In the April Nielsen ratings he trounced all other cable news programming, with an average audience of more than 3 million viewers. His Tucker Carlson Tonight also finished first in the sought-after 25-54 age segment, averaging 523,000 viewers.
Yet the advertising lineup of Carlson's show displays virtually no class at all. Judging from my viewing of the program on a couple of recent evenings, it comprises one advertiser that has attracted a regulatory complaint, another dinged for alleged ineffectiveness, a few others selling products for geriatrics that one would more expect to see more on daytime TV or in predawn hours, and a few other minor consumer products.
A couple of years ago, while Carlson's rank on Fox News was on the rise but before he reached his current peak, his advertisers included Disney, T-Mobile, Lexus and the brokerage TD Ameritrade. None is an advertiser any longer.
It's proper to ask what Fox Corp., his employer, gets out of the relationship. But Fox plainly thinks it gets something of value, for Carlson's contract is reportedly worth $10 million a year.
Carlson has become the most prominent face of right-wing politics on cable. He has attacked immigrants and immigration in the most offensive terms and openly voiced racist talking points.
He ridicules anti-pandemic measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing. On his program a few days ago, he counseled viewers to harass anyone they saw wearing a mask outdoors, and to call the police or "child protective services" on parents if their children are seen wearing masks at play.
Masks are "signifiers of shame and submission," he said, blaming mask rules on "power-drunk politicians."