Extreme Talk: Are We Grabbing Audience At The Expense Of Advertisers?

Earlier in my career, I happily sold advertising on the Rush Limbaugh program.  In those early days, I recall Rush saying the purpose of his show was to attract vast numbers of listeners in order to generate “copious amounts” of advertising revenue. His show was, and remains, quite successful.

Many conservative talk hosts, on radio and TV, followed suit.

I grew up in the terrestrial radio business and some of the opinion talk today in that medium, as well as on cable TV, has drifted toward political extremes. Dancing toward these extremes, many hosts have adopted the tools of political extremism: rumor, speculation, innuendo, even reckless irresponsibility.

The net effect has been twofold:

For one, party loyalists have been driven even further into their corners and bubbles, blurring the lines between what they see as fact and opinion. A recent Pew study found that Republicans and Democrats alike are more apt to think statements in news and political-talk programming are factual when they appeal to their side — even if those statements are actually opinions.



This should serve as a wake-up call to all associated with political talk media.   

Doubling-down on a particular position may seem a shrewd programming strategy. But on the business side, it threatens to scare away the very blue-chip advertisers that helped build the industry and value credibility.

If talk hosts keep harping on about “fake news,” how soon before audiences essentially tune out news in general?  

More to the point — and this is the second consequence — how long before advertisers completely abandon political-talk formats?

Fox News Channel enjoys continued ratings dominance in the cable-TV-news space, yet Politico notes the ad time on Laura Ingraham’s show remains below 11 minutes, vs. about 15 minutes prior to her controversial comments aimed at Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg. Ingraham's largest blue-chip advertisers have yet to return.

Earlier this year, Vanity Fair quoted an unnamed Fox “insider” saying: “Despite all the hype on "Hannity," they can’t sell it.”

“Most [advertising] clients are not inherently courageous,” an executive at a media-buying firm recently told the Los Angeles Times, regarding controversies involving, among others, Ingraham and Samantha Bee.  And why should they, if there are numerous alternatives?

This doesn’t mean sponsors lack spines.  It means they’re sensible businesspeople. They will support robust opinion, not relentless demonization of contrary viewpoints as “fake news” — because it will dilute the value to marketers of talk platforms at both political poles.   

Why, after all, would an advertiser voluntarily place its brand and message in an environment that a considerable portion of consumers considers “fake” or false?   

The risk is not only to ad revenue but to corporate cohesion, as shown by the reaction of Fox Broadcasting pillars Seth McFarlane and Steve Levitan to Tucker Carlson’s encouragement of Fox News viewers to “always assume the opposite of what they’re telling you on the big news stations.”

To her credit, Fox News Channel CEO Suzanne Scott reportedly demanded greater accountability from hosts for the civility of their guests and panelists – and, consequently, better stewardship of the Fox News brand.  

Similarly, managers at all political-talk outlets might follow her lead and be more vigilant about hosts and guests flippantly invoking fascist analogies when describing their political opponents.

The First Amendment of course provides broad liberties.  But, as we’ve heard so many times, it doesn’t permit you to scream “fire!” in a crowded theater. It also does not pay for the production of a talk show. Private-sector revenue potential bestows that right. If the revenue underpinning your talk show declines, so might your “rights” to that talk show – and so might the marketplace for robust political talk.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “You’re entitled to your opinion, but not your own facts.”   

Taking liberties with facts, regardless of whether in the context of an opinion show, may not be a problem for some audiences — but it is a problem for many major brands and agencies.  

The “traditional” or legacy media platforms themselves are brands. The stewards of these brands can’t afford to tarnish them.  he lunatic ravings of Alex Jones no longer even work for YouTube and Twitter.  Why are many radio and cable talk hosts moving in that same direction?

More political talk will surely migrate to digital streaming, but legacy outlets like terrestrial radio and cable TV remain vital, vibrant platforms from an audience-driving and marketing standpoint. That is, if we as an industry don’t continue to traffic in hyperbole and kill our golden goose.

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