Millions of Americans Are Unwittingly Funding Tucker Carlson's Show

In the aftermath of the Derek Chauvin verdict, a Fox News advertising boycott won't work because the company makes so much money from cable bundle fees.
April 21, 2021, 5:46pm
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Activists have successfully driven most advertisers away from Fox News host Tucker Carlson and his particular brand of thinly-veiled white supremacy. But as the millionaire frozen-food heir once again goes viral for his thoughts on the Derek Chauvin verdict, it’s becoming clear that Carlson is relatively immune from an advertising boycott. 

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On Tuesday night’s show, Carlson cut off a former police officer who called Chauvin’s reaction “excessive.”

"The guy who did it looks like he's going to spend the rest of his life in prison. I'm kind of more worried about the rest of the country who, thanks to police inaction, is, you know, boarded up," Carlson said, who then let out a high-pitched laugh.

Rather than target advertisers, activists are also now targeting the cozy relationship Fox News enjoys with major US cable TV providers, who force millions of Americans to pay for a network that platforms Carlson's increasingly less veiled race-baiting. 

From spreading baseless COVID-19 and election conspiracies, to parroting the rhetoric of white nationalists, Fox News’ toxic slurry of disinfotainment is lapped up by an average of 3.3 million Americans every evening. And despite concentrated efforts by groups like Sleeping Giants to target the company’s advertisers, it remains the top-rated cable network during prime time.

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What makes Fox so resilient to accountability? It’s thanks in part to the company’s ongoing relationship with traditional cable operators like Comcast and Charter, who continue to prominently feature the channel in cable lineups, regardless of public harm—or whether consumers want to pay for it. 

Fox News makes $1.8 billion from the carriage fees it charges cable TV providers to include the channel in bloated, increasingly expensive cable TV bundles. But just 3 million of the nation’s 90 million cable TV subscribers actively watch the channel. In other words, 87 million Americans pay their cable company for and thus subsidize Fox News—despite rarely if ever actually watching the channel. 

With 65 percent of Fox’s carriage deals up for renewal this year, activists at Media Matters have been targeting the problem through its Unfox My Cable Box campaign.

“Every network charges cable and satellite providers a small fee per subscriber,” the group notes. “A typical household pays Fox News almost $2 per month—about $20 per year—via their cable or satellite provider, regardless of whether they actually watch the channel.”

Efforts to push the cable industry away from bloated cable bundles and toward “a la carte” channel purchases are nothing new. Maine recently passed a law requiring that Comcast sell channels individually. But Comcast, wary of losing revenue, successfully sued to overturn the law, claiming it violated the company’s First Amendment rights. 

While it certainly won’t solve the broader disinformation problem, killing the traditional cable bundle could go a long way toward limiting Fox News’ role as an amplifier of right-wing rhetoric.

“Imagine if they had to survive in an actual market-based scenario where the number of viewers they could have was limited by the people who would pay to have access to that specific content,” Christopher Terry, Assistant Professor of Media Law at the University of Minnesota recently told Motherboard. “You'd cut them off at the knees and use their own rhetoric to do so while making cable companies more accountable to the local customer base.”

US politicians are slowly but surely starting to wake up to the fact that “big tech” is just one part of America’s blossoming disinformation problem. Last February, lawmakers asked cable giants like Comcast and AT&T why they continue to carry channels like Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax they say harm US democracy, discourse, and human health.

“A media watchdog found over 250 cases of COVID-19 misinformation on Fox News in just one five-day period, and economists demonstrated that Fox News had a demonstrable impact on non-compliance with public health guidelines,” the lawmakers said.

Meanwhile, broader legal and policy solutions for the “Fox News problem” have proven hard to come by.

A US disinformation law likely wouldn’t withstand First Amendment legal challenges, especially with America’s rightward-lurching court system. Neither would the restoration of the “Fairness Doctrine,” FCC rules created in 1949 and discarded in 1987 that required balanced coverage of news subjects (but only applied to broadcast television, not cable TV).

Still, Victor Pickard, an American media studies scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, told Motherboard there’s a number of additional ways America could target the Fox News problem, including greater antitrust scrutiny of the kind of mindless media consolidation that has replaced quality local news with homogenized fluff and nonsense

“Blatant lies to millions of viewers about life and death issues around public health, voting and the integrity of our elections, and conspiracy theories that foment insurrections are simply unacceptable for a democratic society,” Pickard said.

Pickard heavily advocates for broader public funding for traditional, quality journalism as a way to help offset America’s growing diet of fluff and nonsense. That means finding creative new funding models that go beyond advertising (which rewards inflammatory disinformation and clickbait), or embracing a taxpayer-funded media, firewalled from government meddling. 

“Building up a robust public media system that provides a steady supply of reliable journalism to all Americans must be part of the solution,” Pickard said.