Opinion | Will a Boycott Knock Tucker Off the Air? Don’t Count on It.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Some group has organized an advertiser boycott of Tucker Carlson Tonight and is demanding that the Fox News Channel drop him.

In 2018, dozens of major advertisers (Land Rover, Lexus, Samsung, et al.) fled his show after he claimed that immigration makes the United States “poorer, and dirtier, and more divided.” In March 2019, after the activists at Media Matters for America released a 2015 tape of him defending statutory rape (among other archival embarrassments), demonstrators picketed Fox headquarters in New York urging Carlson’s remaining advertisers to dump the show. Citing Carlson’s alleged “white supremacist rhetoric,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) joined calls for a boycott in the summer of that year as additional advertisers peeled off. In 2020, when Carlson defended the Kenosha vigilante and made disparaging remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement, still more advertisers—Papa John’s, Angie’s List, T-Mobile and others—heeded the boycott call. Some nights now most of the commercial blocks are taken up by third-tier advertisers like MyPillow, other direct-response advertisers (“Our operators are waiting …”) and house ads.

Then, earlier this month, the dump Carlson movement hit a new high when the Anti-Defamation League demanded his show’s cancellation for defending “replacement theory,” the idea that Democrats are forcing unwanted immigration on the United States to dilute the voting power of existing citizens. The ADL’s CEO, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, called Carlson’s stand “a classic white supremacist trope that undergirds the modern white supremacist movement in America.”

As before, Fox has rejected the demands for Tucker Carlson Tonight’s cancellation. Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch came to Carlson’s defense, saying he’s no sort of racist, anti-Semitic or white supremacist. Given the commercial value Carlson provides Fox, no advertiser boycott or denunciations from high places will dislodge his show from the network. As long as he maintains his audience (his show is consistently one of the most-watched on cable) and avoids the sort of legal trouble that destroyed Bill O’Reilly’s reputation, Carlson is all but cancel-proof.

Cable news networks depend on advertising revenue to stay in the black, but it’s not their most important source of income. Last fall, Variety reported that the Fox News Channel collects an average of $1.72 a month from every cable subscriber who has Fox in his bundle. Fox News was on track to earn about $1.6 billion in subscriber fees in 2020, the Financial Times reported last year, versus $1.2 billion in advertising sales. If Fox bowed to the protesters and showed Carlson the door, the network would have a new, costly boycott on its hands—that of loyal Carlson viewers vowing to cancel their news from their cable bundle until his return.

Without a doubt, the flight of blue-chip advertisers from the Carlson show annoys Fox’s direct-placement advertisers, and house ads, but how much do the advertiser boycotts hurt the network? In 2020, Fox told Variety that “all national ads and revenue from Carlson’s show have moved to other programs.” Obviously, Fox would prefer to run ads from prestige clients on a popular show like Carlson’s, where viewership is highest and so is the ad rate.

Even if Fox isn’t earning top dollar for Tucker Carlson Tonight advertising slots, the network still benefits from him being on the schedule. Loyal Carlson viewers treat the Fox channel like their home page, leaving it running in the background all day. His presence draws viewers to the programs before his, which Fox can monetize at top rates, and tees up the rest of the evening (the “inheritance effect”) for the Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham shows that follow. If Carlson got the boot, the whole Fox line-up would suffer until a new host reassembled his sizable audience. It took Carlson about a year to match Bill O’Reilly’s stellar ratings after he replaced him in 2017.

Carlson, meanwhile, has been wisely leaning into the storm against him, characterizing the calls for his ouster as a campaign to silence him and, by extension, his audience. In a typical Carlson episode, he repeatedly warns viewers that “they”—government, activists, corporate tyrants, Hollywood—want to muzzle “you” and block “you” from independent thinking. Carlson viewers have historically lapped up this “they-you” umbrage and there’s no reason to think their guy won’t capitalize on the ADL protest and boycott calls to grow his audience. It’s enough to make a paranoid person suspect Carlson has put the protesters on retainer.

Tucker Carlson Tonight remains integral to the Fox formula because the sensationalist views the show serves—populist, race-baiting, nativist, anti-immigrant—slipstream neatly behind those of Fox owner Rupert Murdoch. This is not to suggest that Murdoch endorses everything Carlson says any more than he endorses every tack his British tabloids take. But Murdoch adores ballyhoo and the lurid smell of burning garbage. And he loves to outrage those he considers his elitist foes. As long as the 90-year-old Murdoch lives, you can be sure there will be a space for Carlson—or someone exactly like him—in the Fox parking lot.

What would it take for Fox to fire Carlson? The network sacked the loopy Glenn Beck when they could no longer control him. Fox jettisoned Bill O’Reilly after the dollar value of the sexual harassment suit filed against the network snowballed. As long as Carlson stays out of legal trouble and doesn’t outrun the leash, his Fox masters have roped to his neck, it’s going to be Tucker Carlson tonight, Tucker Carlson tomorrow and Tucker Carlson for as long as he wants to stare-down a Fox TV camera for a living.

******

Bloomberg Opinion’s Tim O’Brien made some valuable Carlson points today. In 2018, I opposed the Carlson boycott. Send “Boycott Shafer” demands to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have never watched a whole Carlson program. My Twitter feed remembers fondly back to the day when Rachel Maddow was a regular panelist on Carlson’s MSNBC show. My RSS feed expects to be paid to watch Fox.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Some group has organized an advertiser boycott of Tucker Carlson Tonight and is demanding that the Fox News Channel drop him.

In 2018, dozens of major advertisers (Land Rover, Lexus, Samsung, et al.) fled his show after he claimed that immigration makes the United States “poorer, and dirtier, and more divided.” In March 2019, after the activists at Media Matters for America released a 2015 tape of him defending statutory rape (among other archival embarrassments), demonstrators picketed Fox headquarters in New York urging Carlson’s remaining advertisers to dump the show. Citing Carlson’s alleged “white supremacist rhetoric,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) joined calls for a boycott in the summer of that year as additional advertisers peeled off. In 2020, when Carlson defended the Kenosha vigilante and made disparaging remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement, still more advertisers—Papa John’s, Angie’s List, T-Mobile and others—heeded the boycott call. Some nights now most of the commercial blocks are taken up by third-tier advertisers like MyPillow, other direct-response advertisers (“Our operators are waiting …”) and house ads.

Then, earlier this month, the dump Carlson movement hit a new high when the Anti-Defamation League demanded his show’s cancellation for defending “replacement theory,” the idea that Democrats are forcing unwanted immigration on the United States to dilute the voting power of existing citizens. The ADL’s CEO, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, called Carlson’s stand “a classic white supremacist trope that undergirds the modern white supremacist movement in America.”

As before, Fox has rejected the demands for Tucker Carlson Tonight’s cancellation. Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch came to Carlson’s defense, saying he’s no sort of racist, anti-Semitic or white supremacist. Given the commercial value Carlson provides Fox, no advertiser boycott or denunciations from high places will dislodge his show from the network. As long as he maintains his audience (his show is consistently one of the most-watched on cable) and avoids the sort of legal trouble that destroyed Bill O’Reilly’s reputation, Carlson is all but cancel-proof.

Cable news networks depend on advertising revenue to stay in the black, but it’s not their most important source of income. Last fall, Variety reported that the Fox News Channel collects an average of $1.72 a month from every cable subscriber who has Fox in his bundle. Fox News was on track to earn about $1.6 billion in subscriber fees in 2020, the Financial Times reported last year, versus $1.2 billion in advertising sales. If Fox bowed to the protesters and showed Carlson the door, the network would have a new, costly boycott on its hands—that of loyal Carlson viewers vowing to cancel their news from their cable bundle until his return.

Without a doubt, the flight of blue-chip advertisers from the Carlson show annoys Fox’s direct-placement advertisers, and house ads, but how much do the advertiser boycotts hurt the network? In 2020, Fox told Variety that “all national ads and revenue from Carlson’s show have moved to other programs.” Obviously, Fox would prefer to run ads from prestige clients on a popular show like Carlson’s, where viewership is highest and so is the ad rate.

Even if Fox isn’t earning top dollar for Tucker Carlson Tonight advertising slots, the network still benefits from him being on the schedule. Loyal Carlson viewers treat the Fox channel like their home page, leaving it running in the background all day. His presence draws viewers to the programs before his, which Fox can monetize at top rates, and tees up the rest of the evening (the “inheritance effect”) for the Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham shows that follow. If Carlson got the boot, the whole Fox line-up would suffer until a new host reassembled his sizable audience. It took Carlson about a year to match Bill O’Reilly’s stellar ratings after he replaced him in 2017.

Carlson, meanwhile, has been wisely leaning into the storm against him, characterizing the calls for his ouster as a campaign to silence him and, by extension, his audience. In a typical Carlson episode, he repeatedly warns viewers that “they”—government, activists, corporate tyrants, Hollywood—want to muzzle “you” and block “you” from independent thinking. Carlson viewers have historically lapped up this “they-you” umbrage and there’s no reason to think their guy won’t capitalize on the ADL protest and boycott calls to grow his audience. It’s enough to make a paranoid person suspect Carlson has put the protesters on retainer.

Tucker Carlson Tonight remains integral to the Fox formula because the sensationalist views the show serves—populist, race-baiting, nativist, anti-immigrant—slipstream neatly behind those of Fox owner Rupert Murdoch. This is not to suggest that Murdoch endorses everything Carlson says any more than he endorses every tack his British tabloids take. But Murdoch adores ballyhoo and the lurid smell of burning garbage. And he loves to outrage those he considers his elitist foes. As long as the 90-year-old Murdoch lives, you can be sure there will be a space for Carlson—or someone exactly like him—in the Fox parking lot.

What would it take for Fox to fire Carlson? The network sacked the loopy Glenn Beck when they could no longer control him. Fox jettisoned Bill O’Reilly after the dollar value of the sexual harassment suit filed against the network snowballed. As long as Carlson stays out of legal trouble and doesn’t outrun the leash, his Fox masters have roped to his neck, it’s going to be Tucker Carlson tonight, Tucker Carlson tomorrow and Tucker Carlson for as long as he wants to stare-down a Fox TV camera for a living.

******

Bloomberg Opinion’s Tim O’Brien made some valuable Carlson points today. In 2018, I opposed the Carlson boycott. Send “Boycott Shafer” demands to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have never watched a whole Carlson program. My Twitter feed remembers fondly back to the day when Rachel Maddow was a regular panelist on Carlson’s MSNBC show. My RSS feed expects to be paid to watch Fox.

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