What does the recent advertiser pull-out mean for Sean Hannity and Fox News?

In the post-Bill O'Reilly era, the cable news network is under marketer scrutiny more than ever before. But some analysts believe it can bounce back.

Sean Hannity caused a stir in May when he discussed the conspiracy theory surrounding the July 2016 murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee aide. As a result, several advertisers pulled out, including Cars.com, Crowne Plaza, Leesa Sleep, TD Ameritrade and banking and investment firm USAA.

USAA has ultimately returned (following some backlash from its customers), and Hannity tapered the discussion at the request of the victim’s family. As such, more advertisers have not exited, and Hannity is still unapologetically hosting his weeknight 10 p.m. ET show on Fox News (as opposed to following Bill O’Reilly to the unemployment line). At least for now he is.

But, for a network already drenched in recent controversy, the potential loss of "Hannity" is now considered more vital than ever, following the departures of Megyn Kelly and Bill O’Reilly.

By the traditional Nielsen ratings, Fox News is still the dominant cable news network. But, without O’Reilly, its margin of leadership has notably diminished this season, whereas competitors CNN and MSNBC have been gaining in the ratings year-over-year thanks to the Donald J. Trump presidency.

For example, season-to-date ratings for Fox News in total viewers in primetime are up 25 percent (2.74 million through May 30) versus just 1 percent since O’Reilly left (2.28 million since the show ended on April 21). Results in target adults 25-54, meanwhile, have slipped from a 38 percent rise all season (559,000) to 12 percent post-O’Reilly (460,000).

In other words, Fox News certainly does not want to lose Hannity. And it should not have to, according to media analyst Bill Carroll.
"I think we need to remember that advertisers fled from ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ for something that allegedly happened behind the scenes, and that is what the network reacted to when they fired him," he said. "Had that not happened, this circumstance with Sean Hannity might not have even occurred because there wouldn’t be the negative attention that now exists for everything that happens at Fox News. When the focus shifts from on the air to behind the scenes—and Fox News has been under a microscope since the issues with Roger Ailes—advertisers start to look more critically at what’s happening."

"As it stands, I don’t see ‘Hannity’ ending," agreed Rob Russo, president of RNR Consulting. "Unlike ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ at the end, the show at present has all the commercial breaks filled. If it got to the point where there was a substantial boycott by advertisers, yes…that is going to have an impact. But minus anything all that controversial in the near future, I don’t see Fox News without Sean Hannity as an option."

Of course, that leads us to the bigger issue of freedom of speech and when exactly an opinion show like "Hannity"—or anyone else—is now being chastised by the advertisers (or support groups) for the rights to voice an opinion.

Just two weeks ago Media Research Center (MRC) founder Brent Bozell issued the following statement: "Every network and cable news channel is on notice that the MRC will be closely monitoring their leftist opinion programs and informing their advertisers and the American public when these programs and hosts go beyond political commentary and engage in smear, hate and political extremism."

This move followed the push by watchdog Media Matters for America for the boycott of the "Hannity" advertisers.

"Advertisers have always had a certain sensitivity to the environment where their programs air," noted Carroll, who cites back to 1972 when the now famous advertiser and affiliated station defections for CBS sitcom "Maude" because the lead character had an abortion. "But the difference is, right now, we are more aware of everything that is happening than ever before in this world of social media. As a result, advertisers are now reacting to the changing dynamic." 

"The reason people have always watched Fox News is because their opinion hosts were not afraid to shy from controversy, but actually lead controversy," added Russo. "To me, this is freedom of speech. Their opinions are their opinions, whether you agree or not."

Once a breeding ground for unfiltered opinion, there is more scrutiny at Fox News—and other news outlets—than ever before. And that could certainly change the dynamic of all these broadcasters, and it won’t necessarily be for the better.

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