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Why Fox News won't cut Tucker Carlson loose — even after 'Patriot Purge'

When one pulls back and looks at Fox’s broader situation, letting Carlson engage in conspiracy-mongering makes a lot of sense.
Image: Fox News Host Tucker Carlson Appears At National Review Ideas Summit
Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses 'Populism and the Right' during the National Review Institute's Ideas Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in Washington, DC., on March 29, 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s new three-part documentary on the Jan. 6 insurrection began airing last week on Fox Nation, Fox’s subscription streaming service. The documentary has generated condemnation from across the political spectrum for its untruths. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, to pick just one example, labeled it “pretty dark and often fact-free.” Its critics have blasted the documentary’s false claim that the insurrection was a “false flag” or “honeypotstaged by former President Donald Trump's foes in national security agencies and the left-wing group antifa to smear Trump backers.

The documentary has generated condemnation from across the political spectrum for its untruths.

The documentary’s willingness to peddle falsehoods and incendiary claims, along with Carlson’s treatment of Covid-19 vaccines (he has spread anti-vaccine falsehoods — raising questions about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, hosting vaccine skeptics, claiming that efforts to vaccinate people or mandate vaccines amounted to “social control” and encouraging people to defy mandates) and race (he traffics in white nationalist claims) have prompted demands that Fox executives rein in their star host or even fire him. Yet the highly promoted release of Carlson’s documentary clearly exposes the network’s calculation: Letting him do his thing is good for the bottom line. And that’s what matters.

While Fox calls itself a news network (and does employ some excellent journalists, like host Chris Wallace, anchor Bret Baier and reporter Jacqui Heinrich), it is a business first and foremost. Claims about journalistic responsibility, morality or the public good matter far less than profit margins. And in a world of increasing competition, Carlson’s often hard-edged, conspiracy- and falsehood-laden, right-wing populism is good for making money. Cynically, it makes sense for Fox to let Carlson doggedly pursue these claims — even though they’re dangerous and false — because the network’s success is more tied to luring a narrow slice of viewers who want precisely this style of content than to what anyone else might think.

Modern conservative media dates to Aug. 1, 1988, when Rush Limbaugh took the national airwaves by storm, in the process blazing a trail for an entire genre of programming. Over the ensuing decades, conservative media has almost always been about the bottom line. The two most dominant players over the decades in terms of audience share and reach — Limbaugh and Fox News — both benefited from debuting as the only conservative options in their respective media (for Limbaugh, nationally syndicated talk radio and for Fox, cable news).

In 2021, however, no conservative outlet or host has that luxury due to a proliferation of right-wing media. While Fox News had the conservative cable market mostly to itself for its first 15-plus years on the air, competitors have since jumped into the fray. In 2013, One America News Network debuted, and in 2014, Newsmax, a pre-existing conservative media platform, launched Newsmax TV. Other players have plunged into the digital video and streaming spaces, including BlazeTV, a merger of Glenn Beck’s The Blaze and Mark Levin’s CRTV.

While these competitors are no match for Fox individually, the network would be foolish to ignore them. Many are growing fast and are offering conservative and Republican viewers the content they want in 2021: the reddest of meat, and lots of it.

In the wake of the 2020 election, and Trump’s fury toward Fox News for correctly calling Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, Newsmax and OAN saw their viewerships spike as they continued to cast doubt on the election outcome for months after all mainstream outlets — and even Fox — had called the race. The viewership spikes directly owed to trafficking in these conspiracy theories.

A late October Politico/Morning Consult poll indicated that a full 3 in 5 Republicans think the election should definitely or probably be overturned. A March Reuters/Ipsos poll similarly showed that roughly half of Republicans thought the people gathered at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were “mostly peaceful, law-abiding Americans” and that the insurrection was “led by violent left-wing protestors trying to make Trump look bad.” As conservative outlets and hosts, including those on Fox, continue to stoke these conspiracy theories, it helps promote and reinforce such views, making the demand for such content that much more intense.

At one time, Fox News promoting and affirming these kinds of antidemocratic views might’ve come at too steep a cost. But not in 2021.

At one time, Fox News promoting and affirming these kinds of antidemocratic views might’ve come at too steep a cost. But not in 2021.

Carlson has lost blue-chip advertisers and generated less advertising revenue in recent years thanks to his scandal-prone, bigoted rhetoric. But advertising revenue is only part of Fox’s profitability. Popular channels charge cable providers a fee for every subscriber in exchange for the ability to air their programming. Fox News is able to charge companies $1.72 per subscriber, according to a 2020 Variety report. The result: According to 2020 Financial Times reporting, Fox News made more from these fees in 2020 — $1.6 billion — than from advertising — $1.2 billion. Newly released earnings info revealed an even more pronounced split.

This business model makes Carlson hugely valuable to Fox. In recent weeks, he generated either its best ratings or its second-highest ratings (behind the roundtable show “The Five”), pulling in more than 3.2 million viewers per night in the third quarter. Bringing in more viewers allows Fox to charge cable companies more money and dissuades them from ever dropping the channel.

Additionally, as evidenced by the placement of the Jan. 6 documentary on Fox Nation — part of a new contract Carlson signed to bring a three-times-per-week video podcast and monthly specials to the streaming service — Fox is using his popularity to drive viewers to Fox Nation. A subscription platform, Fox Nation launched in November 2018 and charges $5.99 per month to subscribe. Again, popularity and passion matter more than advertisers. As John Finley, an executive who oversaw the launch of the streaming service, acknowledged in a 2018 interview, Fox Nation doesn’t have to worry as much about advertising revenue, but the service is crucial to the long-term future of Fox because it’s a hedge against cord-cutting, which will reduce the revenue from those cable carriage fees.

So Carlson’s ability to deliver a large, devoted audience to Fox’s platforms is more important than his penchant for enraging opponents, earning rebukes from journalists or alienating advertisers.

This is doubly true following Fox’s 2019 sale of its movie studio and its regional sports networks, among other properties, to Disney. This move left Fox News and its sibling Fox Business, Fox’s broadcast channel, its local stations and its sports channels as the company’s primary holdings. It also insulated Fox from potential boycott campaigns — perhaps targeted at 20th Century Fox movies or television shows — that could have threatened the company’s broader interests if Carlson inflamed enough non-Fox News viewers.

When one pulls back and looks at Fox’s situation, letting Carlson engage in conspiracy-mongering makes a lot of sense. The network faces increased competition for far-right viewers at a moment when the bottom line depends less on advertising revenue — which would have suffered from Carlson’s antics — and more on subscriber fees tied to the number of eyeballs Fox and Fox Nation are able to draw. Rein Carlson in and risk alienating viewers who, unlike a decade ago, now have other options. While such a calculation is cynical for a purported news network and could do great damage to American democracy, conservative media remains, as always, all about dollars and cents.