Cable subscribers are being forced to subsidize Fox News, even if they don’t watch it

Hateful hosts like Tucker Carlson alienated advertisers, but it hasn’t harmed FNC’s bottom line
Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson speaking with attendees at the 2020 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

First published at Press Run

Remember when bigoted Fox News hosts were forced to take unscheduled ‘vacations’ when their hateful speech kicked up controversy and advertisers, feeling pressure from outraged consumers, would head for the exits? It’s been a long-standing Fox News tradition, as a way to cool the marketplace temperature and ride out storms.  

In 2018, Laura Ingraham hastily left for “a pre-planned vacation” as advertisers started fleeing her show after she mocked a Parkland school shooting survivor online. The year before, Sean Hannity suddenly vanished from the airwaves when advertisers began dropping his time slot when he kept fueling an ugly conspiracy theory about the murder of Seth Rich, a former Democratic National Committee staffer.

And last summer, Tucker Carlson announced a “long-planned” vacation that weirdly started on a Tuesday night, just as high-profile advertisers were ditching him after CNN discovered that Carlson’s head writer had spent years pseudonymously posting wildly vulgar, KKK-like rants online.

Today, those vacations appear to be a thing of the past, even as Carlson purposefully courts controversy with hate speech, remaining a blight on our cuture. (He recently lied, claiming the Covid-19 vaccine has killed thousands of Americans.)  

Consider that weeks after the election, Carlson told viewers that “the 2020 presidential election was not fair” and that “no honest person would claim that it was fair.” Just two days before the deadly January 6 insurrection, he claimed that election was “rigged” and then, “There is no evidence that white supremacists were responsible for what happened on January 6.”

White nationalists love Carlson, that’s a fact. One of them even called him “literally our greatest ally.”

Carlson generated more headlines last month when he denounced Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a “disgraceful,” “stupid” “pig” after Milley told lawmakers that military personnel should be “widely read” and that included learning about issues such as critical race theory. Several veterans groups responded with outrage, and pressured USAA, which provides financial services to personnel and the families of those who serve or have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, to stop advertising on Carlson’s show.


In theory it should work. Just ask previous, top-rated Fox News hosts such as Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck who got tossed overboard when their shows became largely ad-free zones when advertisers walked away following scandalous commentary (Obama is a “racist”), and behavior (chronic sexual harassing.)  

For years progressive activists used that marketplace dynamic as a key leverage point, working hard to drive advertisers away from Fox News’ toxic content. The tug-of-war was well defined: If hosts insisted on trafficking in clearly racist, homophobic and hateful language, then Madison Ave. clients were going to be forced to make a choice, stand with Fox or stand with common decency.  

For dozens (hundreds?) of advertisers and would-be Fox advertisers, that choice over the years has been a no-brainer. Corporate America spends untold billions each year cultivating brand value and has no interest flushing that away via some hot-headed basic cable host. Bye-bye Disney, Lexus, T-Mobile etc. They all have dropped Carlson.  

He’s Madison Ave. poison. So why does he still have a show?

What’s now protecting Carlson, aside from the support he gets from Murdoch’s powerful son, Lachlan, who has publicly defended the host’s white supremacy programming, are cable fees. Billions of dollars in cable fees. The network earns more annually in fees from cable operators, such as Comcast and Verizon, that pay to carry Fox News content, than the network earns from advertising. 

What’s so unusual about the Fox News carrier fees is it’s wildly bloated in terms of how many people actually watch the network.  

From Judd Legum’s Popular Information:  

According to a survey conducted late last year, about 14% of cable TV subscribers watch Fox News regularly. But every cable TV subscriber pays an average of $1.72 a month to receive Fox News. In contrast, 31% of cable TV subscribers regularly watch FX (owned by Disney) but the channel adds just $0.81 to an average cable bill. This means, for every actual viewer, Fox News receives a $7.75 subsidy from people who never watch Fox News. 

The network rakes in nearly $2 billion each year from the hidden subscriber fees, twice as much as CNN and three times as much as MSNBC. Those sky-high fees in turn protect Fox News when advertisers abandon the network. 

Meanwhile, Carlson is scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of remaining advertisers (WaxRx, Fungi-Nail), led by Trump sycophant Mike Lindell’s MyPillow.

Back at the end of March, “Of the 81 minutes and 15 seconds of Tucker Carlson Tonight ad time from March 25-31, My Pillow made up about 20% of those, Fox News Channel promos had over 5% and Fox Nation had nearly 4%,” TVRev reported. So, almost 1-in-3 ad minutes were filled by a partisan Carlson ally, which means he’s playing with house money.

We know there’s no collective conscience among managers at Fox News. Without the marketplace pressure of advertising boycotts to occasionally shame the network, it’s difficult to hold Murdoch’s rogue operation accountable.

For more on carrier fees and taking on Fox News, see #UnFoxMyCablebox.