Fox News prepares to court advertisers as network grapples with multiple scandals

By Brian Stelter, CNN Business

(CNN) — This week’s turmoil involving Tucker Carlson and another right-wing shouter, Jeanine Pirro, is coming at one of the worst possible times for Fox News.

On Wednesday the network’s sales executives are hosting a big event for advertisers to promote Fox’s news brand. Shows like “Special Report” and “Shepard Smith Reporting” are going to be front and center.

But the headlines about Carlson and Pirro’s offensive statements are undermining Fox’s sales pitch. Advertisers, generally speaking, don’t want to be anywhere near controversy.

Ad buyers may not be able to avoid it on Wednesday though. Liberal groups are planning a protest outside Fox News headquarters in New York City to coincide with the sales event.

The news cycle has not been Fox-friendly this month. Last week’s New Yorker article about Fox’s alliance with Trump administration and the Democratic National Committee’s decision to exclude Fox from its primary debate lineup were sources of tension within the network.

The Pirro wound was completely self-inflicted — her attack against Rep. Ilhan Omar was scripted and read aloud on Saturday’s show. Fox’s rebuke of her comments followed on Sunday night. Pirro has not apologized.

The Carlson controversy was triggered by Media Matters for America, a progressive media organization that campaigns against Fox on a daily basis. On Sunday night the group released the first batch of audio clips from Carlson’s past appearances on “Bubba the Love Sponge Show.” Carlson could be heard making many misogynistic and crude comments.

The group released the second batch on Monday night — at the exact same time Carlson was defending himself on Fox.

The clips are from 2006 to 2011. But Media Matters drew new attention to Carlson’s history of offensive comments with an eye toward Wednesday’s advertiser shindig.

According to a recent report by Variety’s Brian Steinberg, the event is intended to press “against the notion that the network is only for conservatives.”

Fox has a financial motivation for adjusting the way it is perceived in the advertising marketplace. All three of its prime time talk shows, which is largely driven by opinion and punditry, have been targeted by liberal ad boycott efforts in the past year. Carlson and fellow conservative commentators Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have all spoken out against the efforts.

So Fox is touting its newscasts instead, reminding advertisers that it has plenty of other spots to place ads. “Shepard Smith Reporting” and “Special Report” are Fox News’ daytime and evening news programs, respectively. (The controversial opinion shows, however, are much higher-rated.)

New Yorkers have seen signs of this new marketing campaign already. Fox’s ads on the sides of buses say, in all caps, “AMERICA IS WATCHING.”

Wednesday’s event at Fox HQ is also part of the campaign. Media Matters evidently wants attendees to walk by a sea of protesters. So it is organizing Wednesday’s protest and partnering with other progressive groups to get the word out. For instance, the “Pod Save America” podcast promoted it on Monday’s episode.

“They’re having a protest outside of Fox News HQ on Wednesday at 11 a.m. in New York,” co-host Tommy Vietor said. “So if you want to send a message, and you want people to actually care there, let the advertisers know.”

Carlson’s show had a noticeably light ad load on Monday night, which indicated a lack of willing sponsors. In lieu of big brand advertisers, there were mostly direct-response ads and promos for other Fox shows.

Several companies have said that they’re canceling or reevaluating their ad placements on Carlson and Pirro’s show.

Sheex, which makes bedding and sleepwear, told The Hollywood Reporter that it was ceasing to run ads on Carlson’s show “due to the inappropriate statements of Tucker Carlson that have recently come to light.”

And NerdWallet told THR that in the wake of the Pirro controversy, “we’re no longer advertising on this show and don’t have plans to in the future.”

In its defense, Fox oftentimes cites its high cable news ratings. That’s what veteran Fox analyst Brit Hume did on Monday night when he tweeted out Friday’s cable news ratings — which had Carlson in first place among total viewers — and said “doing well is the best revenge.”

CNN analyst Joe Lockhart responded to Hume by expressing regret that “bigotry and misogyny sells so well.”

“It’s a stain on our country,” Lockhart wrote. “Ratings don’t trump values and I know you know that.”

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