How Tucker Carlson Reframed Fox News and Became Trump’s Heir

In early June 2020, Mr. Carlson told his audience that the Black Lives Matter protests were “definitely not about black lives” and to “remember that when they come for you.” The next night, as Fox’s public relations team insisted that Mr. Carlson’s comment was being misconstrued, Mr. Carlson bowed. “The mob came for us, irony of ironies,” he told Fox viewers. “They spent the last 24 hours trying to get the show off the air for good. They will not succeed in that, fortunately. We work for one of America’s last brave companies and they are not intimidated.”

Off camera, Mr. Carlson could be less challenging. In a conversation that spring with Eric Owens, one of his former employees at The Daily Caller, he worried that the controversy over his show had made it difficult for his children to get jobs and internships; he worried that his younger children would not get into college. “It’s not right that this affects my family and literally affects my children’s future,” Mr. Carlson said, according to Mr. Owens.

But it’s less clear whether the attacks significantly affected Fox’s bottom line: To make up for lost publicity, Fox turned “Tucker Carlson Tonight” into a promotional engine for the network itself. He replaced fleeing sponsors with a torrent of internal promotions, capitalizing on Mr. Carlson’s popularity to drive viewers to other, more advertiser-friendly deals. At the beginning of 2019, about a fifth of all advertising “impressions” on the show came from house ads, according to data from analytics company iSpot.tv. That summer, as Fox fended off criticism of Carlson’s “hoax” comments, the ratio rose to more than a third. (A Fox spokeswoman said the actual ratios were lower, but she declined to provide specific numbers.) “Fox is basically a huge loyalty brand,” said Jason Damata, chief executive of Fabric Media, a media consultancy. “He is the hook.”

Other ad slots were filled by direct-to-consumer brands that didn’t care about Mr. Carlson’s bad publicity or saw that they could use his intensity to sell their products. Starting in January 2019, MyPillow, a Fox advertiser whose CEO Mike Lindell is one of the main promoters of Trump’s stolen election lie, began running more than $1 million worth of ads on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” each month. Fox seemed to be using MyPillow to cushion Mr. Carlson: while other ads dried up, the company’s ads skyrocketed. (In total, until December 2021, Mr. Lindell had purchased advertising that would have cost $91 million at published rates; discounts probably reduced that amount).

Top-tier advertisers would never return to the current program. But thanks in part to the large audiences he was able to provide to the advertisers who stayed on, and the premium prices Fox was able to charge them, Carlson’s ad revenue began to pick up. Every year since 2018, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has generated more annual ad revenue for Fox than any other show, according to iSpot estimates. Last May, after promoting the “replacement” theory of white supremacy, Carlson had half as many advertisers as he did in December 2018, but grossed almost twice as much money.

As “Tucker Carlson Tonight” became more toxic to advertisers, it also began to feature fewer guests who disagreed with the host and more guests who simply echoed or amplified Mr. Carlson’s own message. It wasn’t just that liberals didn’t want to debate it, though some have now refused to appear on the show, as Carlson complained during an appearance on Fox last summer; Fox was learning that his audience didn’t necessarily like to hear from the other side. “From my conversations with Fox News bookers, my conclusion is that they have come to the conclusion that they just don’t do debate segments anymore,” said Richard Goodstein, a Democratic lobbyist and campaign adviser who appeared regularly on Carlson’s show until than the summer of 2020. Across much of Fox’s lineup, former employees said, producers increasingly relied on panels of pro-Trump conservatives who competed to see who could most fervently denounce Democrats, a ratings tactic that a former Fox employee called it “anger inflation.” .” (An exception, perhaps, is “The Five,” a panel show with four conservative co-hosts and a left-wing rotating co-host, which has overtaken Carlson in total viewership in some recent months.)

And as advertisers fled, Carlson’s opening monologue grew. Where once he spoke for only a few minutes, sometimes in a neutral mode of just asking questions, he now often opened the show with a lengthy speech, addressing his audience as “you” and the objects of his fury as a somber “they.” “. .” Ratings data showed the monologues were a hit with viewers, according to a former and current Fox employee, and by 2020, Mr. Carlson regularly spoke directly to the camera for more than a quarter of an hour in length. of the program. Instead of less Tucker, the audience got more.

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