Laura Ingraham’s ratings are surging, but big advertisers are still steering clear of her show months after a series of activist-led boycotts scared off many national brands.
Ingraham, the conservative radio talker-turned-Fox News opinion host, infuriated gun-control advocates in March when she mocked Parkland, Fla., shooting survivor and activist David Hogg for being rejected by a handful of colleges. Hogg called for his supporters to boycott brands until they stopped advertising on Ingraham’s show, leading several major companies to drop out. He renewed the call in June, after Ingraham compared facilities at which immigrant children were being held to “summer camps.”
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It’s not unusual for advertisers to flee temporarily when controversy strikes a television program. But the sustained loss of advertising minutes and big, nationally recognized brands from “The Ingraham Angle” shows the power of activist-led boycotts and the depth of major corporations’ concerns about offending would-be consumers in the hyperpoliticized era of President Donald Trump.
Early this year, Ingraham’s show averaged nearly 15 minutes of advertisements per hour, in line with those of her Fox News prime-time colleagues Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, according to an analysis for POLITICO by Kantar Media.
That number plummeted after the boycott campaign, and it still hasn’t recovered: Last month, “The Ingraham Angle” averaged 10 minutes and 50 seconds of ads per hour, Kantar Media found.
While that’s up a couple of minutes from directly after the spring boycott, more significant, according to Kantar Media chief research officer Jon Swallen, is the fact that Ingraham’s show remains bereft of blue-chip national advertisers.
Before April, her top advertisers included Geico, Arby’s, Liberty Mutual and Humira. Last month, though, that distinction belonged to lower-profile brands: HomeToGo.com, Sandals Resorts, Jenny Craig, ClearChoice Dental Implants and Nutrisystem.
“That boycott held firm, regardless of the fact that audience ratings are increasing,” Swallen said. “There are still a number of advertisers that don’t want to be associated with the program.”
“Brands are skittish about alienating potential customers,” he said.
Marianne Gambelli, head of ad sales for Fox, told POLITICO that Fox News is not concerned with the state of advertising on Ingraham’s show.
She said the network’s strategy for the program involves keeping Ingraham’s advertising load light to help boost ratings. MSNBC shows tend to carry less advertising, and Gambelli said Fox News wanted to give “The Ingraham Angle,” which launched last Oct. 30 and airs at 10 p.m. weekdays, a better chance to compete in its first year on the air.
The idea is that during commercial breaks, viewers tend to flip channels, so having fewer ads leads to better ratings. While it’s unlikely that viewers flip directly from Ingraham to Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, they could leave for other programming. Cable news networks put tremendous value on the bragging rights of beating one another in the ratings.
Before the boycotts, Ingraham had significantly more ad time — nearly 15 minutes per show — but Gambelli said that was due to preexisting advertising obligations. Once the controversies began, she said, the network decided to keep a lighter load to help buoy the show, then just five months old.
Without doubt, Ingraham’s ratings have been high. The third quarter was her best on the air, with “The Ingraham Angle” ranking as the fourth most watched show on cable news — behind Hannity, Carlson and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow — and averaging 2.7 million viewers per episode.
Conservative cheerleaders for Ingraham have been quick to point out that her ratings have increased in the face of the boycotts, but, it turns out, having fewer commercials could be a big reason for those gains.
“With Laura, we’ve purposefully kept a lower unit load,” Gambelli said. “It was a new show, and it was so important to launch her.”
“We are 100 percent supportive of what she’s doing. We’re very comfortable with where she is,” said Gambelli, who declined to address specific revenue figures.
She did not deny, however, that some advertisers had chosen to leave the show. Some brands, Gambelli said, do not want to appear alongside opinion programming. Ingraham’s show, she said, has not been “singled out.”
Still, big brands such as Acura, Subaru, Progressive Insurance and National Car Rental remain among the top advertisers on Hannity’s and Carlson’s shows, according to Kantar.
Gambelli said Media Matters, the liberal group that tracks conservative media, and other activists have made it uncomfortable for brands to align themselves with certain content.
Advertisers, Gambelli said, “don’t go away because they’re boycotting. They go away because they don’t want to be part of the conversation.”
“They’re kind of forced off, whether they want to be or not,” she said. “They go silent for a while because they don’t want to be part of the controversy either way. … They go quiet and come back.”
In the month before the boycott began, 229 brands advertised on “The Ingraham Angle,” according to Kantar. In the month following, there were 71; as of last month, there were 85.
With most big national brands gone, Swallen said Ingraham’s commercial breaks are now mostly filled with direct-sales ads — companies hawking a specific product to order. Swallen described them as “bottom feeders,” meaning that they often look to buy leftover space at discounted rates and are less picky about where their ads appear.
He estimated that the hit to Ingraham’s show could range from 15 percent to 30 percent of its advertising revenue. But Fox News, which rakes in billions per year, can easily weather that loss, especially since a big chunk of its revenue comes from cable and satellite companies that pay to carry the network.
Gambelli said Fox News does not count revenue from individual shows and that it values direct-response advertisers as much as any other.
“We don’t base how we program based on revenue as much as how we’re appealing to our viewers. That’s our first and foremost objective,” she said. “Because her audience is so valuable.”
The bigger change is for advertisers, who are increasingly skittish about being associated with such controversial content.
“In this era, I don’t think that advertisers will dare to go back, at least not for a while,” said Pinar Yildirim, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Yildirim said that with polarization running so high, “people are more sensitive now.”
“We should not expect advertisers to go back as soon as they would have before Trump,” she said.
Ingraham, of course, is known for her penchant for inflammatory comments. In addition to the statements that led directly to the boycotts, she drew intense criticism over the summer for saying that “massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people” during a monologue about immigration.
One advertising executive said that most brands he works with find it easier to steer clear of the Fox News prime-time block. He said CNN and MSNBC are not subject to the same concerns, since those networks’ hosts have not courted controversy at the same level.
“Those prime-time personalities for the most part have proven themselves over time to be more trouble than they’re worth,” the executive said of Fox News.
Gambelli pushed back on this point in a statement, touting Carlson, Ingraham and Hannity as “appointment viewing” with top ratings and saying that “they have the most buzz of any anchors in cable news.”
But Ingraham’s controversies have also worn on her staff, contributing to low morale, according to two people familiar with the show’s dynamics.
Ingraham’s executive producer, Tommy Firth, disputed that there are any morale issues, saying in a statement that the team is proud of its work. “The opportunity to work with Laura in primetime on the number onecable network on the planet is not lost on any of us, and our entire team enjoys being part of a hit show,” he said.
There is no denying, though, that the same opinions that win Ingraham so many fans among her base have also offended others, leading to controversy after controversy.
“You’re not making a show when there’s all that stuff,” one of the people familiar with the show said. “You’re putting out fires.”