Brand managers and advertising clients who are asked to join such a boycott face an impossible choice: To agree would make them targets of endless demands that other types of content should also be avoided, and advertisers have to draw the line somewhere.
Currently, that line encircles only Beck. Since Beck called President Obama a racist last year, advertisers have run for the exits. Not a single household name -- beyond News Corp.'s (NWS) own house ads -- now buys time on Beck's show.
Instead, those advertisers have moved to the less inflammatory parts of Fox News. ("Less inflammatory" is a relative term of course; Fox's staff recently spent timesuggesting that Obama believes Republicans should sit at the "back of the bus," even though Obama didn't actually say that.)
That, however, is irrelevant. Advertisers are not likely to extend their distaste beyond Beck because of the dominant role Fox has in the cable news business. It's not until you see the stats laid out that you realize quite how radically Fox has shaped the TV news business around it. Fox even dominates among upscale viewers, a coveted demographic for advertisers, and it takes in almost $100 million more in ad dollars per year than CNN:
Part of Fox's upfront pitch will include a slide that shows its share of 25- to 54-year-old viewers with household incomes of $100,000 or more. Among its broader competitive cable set, Fox has 26% share of cable's gross rating points among that audience, more than History (12%), Discovery (11%) and CNN (9%).
Fox News captured about $511.4 million in ad dollars in 2009, according to Kantar Media, handily trumping CNN's $420.2 million (MSNBC notched just $131.7 million, according to Kantar).CNN, which invented the genre, now has a smaller primetime audience than MSNBC and is now specifically regarded by advertisers as the tinier, safer alternative to Fox. Only two companies have said they will not buy ads on Fox: Apple (AAPL), which never bought much anyway, per Ad Age, and Clorox (CLX), which said it would avoid all news commentary programming at the beginning of the Beck flap. Huge sums of advertiser money are at stake, and most companies cannot live without the medium that delivers more news viewers than anyone else: Fox.
There have been recent attempts to calm the hysteria that has developed around cable news. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was part of that, and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann recently retired his "Worst Person in the World" segment.
Don't expect these efforts to be very influential. To cooperate with a boycott of Fox, advertisers would have to explain why they are doing so. And that would require them to take sides. Do you really want advertisers deciding which news gets funded and which doesn't? (Sure, corporations are already doing that with election campaign funds, but it would be nice if the news business didn't also devolve to the level of Capitol Hill.)
Advertisers don't want their brands tainted with politics, which is why they have a second incentive to continue buying time on Fox: As long as they're also on CNN, Fox helps them prove their bipartisanship. They literally can't not advertise on Fox, because to do so would "prove" they are taking sides.