Angelo Carusone thinks Bill O’Reilly’s days at Fox News are numbered.
It’s a notion that would have seemed far-fetched even a few days ago, and most industry observers remain highly dubious. But Carusone isn’t just shouting into the wind: He has done it before.
Carusone, the president of liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America, is one of the main organizers of the #StopOReilly campaign, which is pressuring businesses to pull their ads from “The O’Reilly Factor” in light of sexual harassment allegations against the popular Fox News host.
He also was the organizer of Media Matters’ successful campaign against former Fox News host Glenn Beck, and another campaign that succeeded in needling Rush Limbaugh.
And so far, Carusone’s campaign against O’Reilly has had some notable successes. According to Media Matters, about 150 different businesses and organizations ran ads on “The O’Reilly Factor” in the last two weeks. So far, more than 50 “O’Reilly Factor” advertisers have pulled their ads from the show, CNN Money reports. Though at least one “O’Reilly Factor” sponsor has stopped advertising on Fox News altogether, most of them have simply worked with the network to move their ads to other Fox News shows.
“We value our partners and are working with them to address their current concerns about the O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News executive V.P. of advertising sales Paul Rittenberg said in a statement. “At this time, the ad buys of those clients have been re-expressed into other FNC programs.”
It all started on Saturday, when The New York Times published an investigation into O’Reilly’s behavior. (O’Reilly has denied all wrongdoing.) The reaction to the story was almost immediate, with social media users calling on Fox News to fire O’Reilly and media reporters calling up prominent sponsors of O’Reilly’s show to ask if they planned to pull their ads.
O’Reilly has weathered many calls for his firing over the years, and his sponsors have always stood behind him. Just last week, O’Reilly was at the center of a minor controversy when he insulted Rep. Maxine Waters. That controversy, like others before it, failed to prompt an advertiser exodus.
The big difference between the past controversies involving O’Reilly and the current one? The past ones largely concerned inflammatory comments that O’Reilly made on his show, Carusone said, while the latest controversy centers on O’Reilly’s behavior toward his colleagues. Criticism of O’Reilly’s bloviating can easily be spun as partisan politics.
But criticism of his alleged sexual harassment of colleagues is harder to discount — especially when many of the blue-chip advertisers who sponsor his show want to express that they have a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment in their own workplaces.
“This is not based off of an outrage moment, but rather, it’s responsive to a deep pattern of sexual harassment,” Carusone said. “It doesn’t have a political partisan lens, the way maybe a comment around an individual would have or a statement that some people may find outrageous and others may not. This is about behavior that is universally wrong.”
Carusone is a veteran of multiple pressure campaigns. In 2009, while still a student in law school, he launched the #StopBeck campaign, which urged advertisers to stop sponsoring Beck’s show on Fox News in response to his extreme rhetoric, including having called Barack Obama a racist. After graduating from law school and joining Media Matters, Carusone started a spin-off campaign called #DropFox, which encouraged advertisers to pull ads from all Fox News shows until the network fired Beck.
In the end, according to Carusone, more than 300 sponsors dropped Beck’s show and Fox News parted ways with Beck in 2011. In 2013, Beck said that he had decided to leave the network to “save his soul,” but an anonymous Fox News spokesperson told POLITICO’s Mike Allen that Beck’s departure was a result of the advertiser boycott.
“Glenn Beck wasn’t trying to save his soul, he was trying to save his ass,” the spokesperson told Allen. “Advertisers fled his show and even Glenn knows what that means in our industry. Yet, we still tried to give him a soft landing. Guess no good deed goes unpunished.”
Carusone also launched a #StopRush campaign, which placed pressure on sponsors of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show after Limbaugh called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “a prostitute” for campaigning for access to contraception. Though a number of sponsors have pulled their radio spots, and some affiliates have stopped carrying Limbaugh’s syndicated radio show, he has so far weathered the controversy and remained on the air.
The key to these kinds of pressure campaigns, Carusone said, is convincing the advertisers that they are accountable for the shows that they advertise on. In general, advertisers don’t feel that kind of responsibility. They place their ads on a show (often through an intermediary, like a media buyer) because their target demographic watches the show, not because they endorse the content of the show itself.
According to Carusone, it usually takes days or weeks of sustained pressure to convince the media and the public that a show’s advertisers should be held accountable, and then to convince the advertisers that they will suffer brand damage unless they pull their ads. It wasn’t until a month after Carusone launched his #StopBeck campaign in 2009 that the first sponsor dropped Beck’s show.
Not everyone agrees that it’s fair to hold advertisers accountable for the shows that they advertise on. POLITICO media columnist Jack Shafer wrote on Wednesday that he opposes the advertiser boycotts on principle.
“When we encourage corporate advertisers to police content and commentators, we end up making them the guardians and arbiters of journalism, always a bad choice,” he wrote.
Carusone seems surprisingly sympathetic to this argument.
“I don’t like the idea of getting into ideological back-and-forths with advertisers,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to keep roping in every association to win your fight. … I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s fair.”
But he has two exceptions to that rule. First, he believes advertisers should be held responsible for advertising on a program like Beck’s, where “the business model is something really toxic and destructive.” Second, he believes that advertisers should be held responsible for doing business with someone who has been accused of egregious conduct. He cites the example of Bill Cosby. When Cosby was accused of being serial sexual predator, Carusone said, the public and media expected NBC and Netflix to publicly announce whether they would continue working on projects with him.
Something similar happened after the allegations against O’Reilly were published in the Times.
The paper found that six women had accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment — including lewd comments and inappropriate phone conversations — and that he had paid confidential settlements to four of them. The Times also found that a seventh woman had reportedly accused O’Reilly of verbal harassment — screaming at her in the middle of the newsroom — and that he had paid a confidential settlement to her as well.
In response to the allegations, Fox News parent 21st Century Fox released a statement to the Times which noted that no employees had ever formally complained about O’Reilly’s behavior.
“21st Century Fox takes matters of workplace behavior very seriously,” the company said. “Notwithstanding the fact that no current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously, we have looked into these matters over the last few months and discussed them with Mr. O’Reilly. While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr. O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility. Mr. O’Reilly is fully committed to supporting our efforts to improve the environment for all our employees at Fox News.”
In his own statement to the Times, O’Reilly strongly denied all of the allegations against him.
“Just like other prominent and controversial people, I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity,” he said.
“I’m a father who cares deeply for my children and who would do anything to avoid hurting them in any way,” he added. “And so I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children.”
Immediately after the Times published the allegations against O’Reilly on April 1, “The O’Reilly Factor” sponsors seemed to anticipate the social media backlash against them. Before the April 3 episode of “The O’Reilly Factor” — the first taped since the Times article was published — even aired, Mercedes-Benz announced that it was pulling its ads. Carusone believes that Mercedes made a shrewd decision to get out ahead of the controversy.
“If you get brand damage, you have to pay to fix that. They know it. The big question for them is, is it worth it? Is it worth staying on O’Reilly’s program and running ads on Wednesday night or Thursday night, and then being one of the advertisers who gets blown up on social media because you’re still on the program?”
Over the next few days, the advertiser boycott accelerated. It largely happened on an industry-by-industry basis, Carusone said, which is typical in these kinds of campaigns. Once Mercedes pulled its ads, Hyundai, BMW and other car companies followed suit. Pharmaceutical companies continued running ads on the show. But then pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline pulled its ads. It was quickly followed by Bayer, Pfizer, Eli Lilly and other pharmaceutical companies wary of looking less enlightened than their direct competitors.
The multi-million dollar question now is, what will happen next? Will advertisers return to “The O’Reilly Factor” once the controversy dies down in a few weeks or months, or will the advertiser defections continue until Fox News is compelled to dump O’Reilly?
The network recently signed a new contract with O’Reilly, despite being aware of the allegations against him, The Wall Street Journal reported. The Washington Post reported that the multi-year contract lasts through at least 2020 and will pay O’Reilly around $18 million per year.
“The O’Reilly Factor” is the highest-rated show on cable news and is a big money-maker for Fox News. According to Kantar Media, the show brought in over $178 million in advertising revenue in 2015.
Carusone expects that the growing advertiser boycott will hurt the show’s revenues. If fewer advertisers are willing to buy ads on “The O’Reilly Factor,” Carusone explained, then Fox News will need to cut its ad rates in order to find buyers.
“No matter what happens, Bill O’Reilly’s advertiser rates will never recover,” Carusone said. “The market is not going to keep paying him the same rates. … That’s exactly what happened with Glenn Beck. [Fox News] couldn’t commercialize and get the full return on investment from his audience, because of the fact that the industry and the market drove the rates down.”
But even if O’Reilly’s ad rates fall, it’ll be tough to determine the impact that will have on Fox News’ bottom line. For one thing, most of the advertisers boycotting O’Reilly are not abandoning Fox News altogether, but are moving their ads to other Fox News shows.
For another, Fox News is not all that dependent on advertising revenue. Andrew Tyndall, an analyst of the TV news business, writes in The Hollywood Reporter that O’Reilly’s large audience is more important than the advertising it brings in.
“The fiscal importance to FNC of The O’Reilly Factor derives from its audience size rather than its advertising revenues, even after these defections,” Tyndall writes. “In the cable television universe, O’Reilly’s audience is so big that it renders the carriage of FNC indispensable, thereby allowing the channel to charge cable operators top dollar, which is the true source of its fabulous profitability.”
In other words, so many people want to watch “The O’Reilly Factor” that cable companies like Comcast have no choice but to include it in their cable packages — and to pay Fox News a high fee for the right to do so.
If Fox News does decide to stand by O’Reilly, then it could have major repercussions for parent company 21st Century Fox, according to Carusone.
“They are trying to get Sky News in the U.K., so they’re under regulatory scrutiny there,” he said, referring to 21st Century Fox’s bid for British pay-TV provider BSkyB, which is currently being reviewed by British media regulator Ofcom. Carusone suggested that bad publicity surrounding Fox News’ handling of the sexual assault allegations could make Ofcom less willing to approve the deal.
“The takeover was pushed to the regulatory agency because they didn’t want to have the ‘Fox-ification’ of Sky News,” he said. “That’s what they called it! They called it the ‘Fox-ification of Sky News.’”
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