Fox News is in a bit of a catch-22 right now. Their ratings are sky-high, per usual, but advertising on a couple of their signature shows is collapsing. Per Variety:
Ad money spent in support of [Laura] Ingraham and [Sean] Hannity rose in 2018, but ad dollars attached to “Tucker Carlson Tonight” fell 47.8%, to $48.3 million from almost $92.7 million in 2017, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending.
According to Angelo Carusone, President of Media Matters for America (a watchdog who tracks right-wing media), Fox News is having a “severe ad sales crisis.”
Now, we don't have much more detail from Media Matters, and Variety notes that Ingraham and Hannity actually saw their ad revenue go up last year, so do not take this as a blanket “all of Fox News is in trouble” report. But at the very least, Tucker Carlson's advertising collapse is an incredibly ominous sign. Losing nearly half your ad revenue on an advertising-based business model is a good way to lose your TV show.
But Carlson's ratings are still very high. Fox News has done a tremendous job getting (old) people hooked on their propaganda network, and that establishes a pretty high floor for their programs. Fox News makes money largely through two avenues: advertising revenue and subscription fees. When you pay Comcast for your cable fee, more than a dollar and fifty cents from each subscriber goes to Fox News. The network receives that fee based on the number of viewers they bring, and that is why advertising dollars are not enough to take down this behemoth. Big ratings mean big money from cable companies, but Fox News finds itself mired in a dynamic where their revenue from cable companies is sort of at odds with their advertising revenue.
Tucker Carlson has good ratings because his white nationalist program is enjoyed by white nationalists. As Trump's election and Fox News' continued success proves, white nationalism is big business in America. That said, we are in an era where white nationalism is beginning to be viewed as the cancer upon society it always has been, and because capitalism simply follows the culture, Tucker Carlson's white nationalist propaganda hour is hemorrhaging advertisers. This dynamic has begun to extend to other shows on the network.
Having high ratings while advertisers abandon you en masse is a toxic combination for Fox News, because the ratings confirm that the programming is going down the right path, even though advertisers are spending less and less. This can create something of a death spiral, where ratings become something of a self-perpetuating goal, as they are the main positive Fox News can sell to advertisers, even though advertisers are skittish on the content that drives the ratings. We don’t know where this is headed, and many brands have come back to shows like Laura Ingraham’s after saying they were pulling their ads, so it’s impossible to state anything definitively other than this: activist pressure on the brands who advertise on Fox News is working. Keep it up.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.