Marianne Gambelli is comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
As the first woman to handle media buying on a beer account when she was a TV buyer at Backer, Spielvogel & Bates in the late 1980s, there were plenty of lunches where she was the only female—not just at the table, but anywhere in Miller Brewing's Milwaukee dining room. People considered it so bizarre to put a woman on a beer account that nobody told the client until two months after the fact. Gambelli also became the first woman to sell ads in broadcast sports programming such as the NFL and the NBA when she joined NBC in 1989.
It's perhaps fitting, then, that Gambelli is now the first woman to lead Fox News' ad sales division, following a year riddled with sexual harassment allegations that all but dismembered the upper ranks of the organization.
Jack Abernethy has spent the last few months cleaning up Fox News, sometimes quite literally. On an afternoon in mid-June, the co-president of the cable news behemoth grabbed a piece of litter from the floor as he made his way to Gambelli's office. "We're trying to make it not look like a piece of ... you know," he said.
Abernethy, a Fox veteran, was named to his current role last August after Roger Ailes, the network's founding chairman and CEO, was abruptly and astonishingly ousted over accusations of sexual harassment. The other co-president, Bill Shine, left this past May, accused of enabling a hostile workplace.
Fox News has spent the last few months "getting the best people in the right places and having people here that really want to take everything to the next level," Abernethy said. That includes Gambelli, a well-known and respected career ad exec who is a symbol of the organization's efforts to publicly rebrand. She started Fox News on May 22-, some four weeks after the network split with Bill O'Reilly amid an advertiser revolt and four days after Ailes died at home. Two days later, there would be another ad boycott, if a much smaller one, of Sean Hannity's program.
Where others see a vulnerable company beset by controversy, Gambelli describes a new era coming at Fox News—one ripe for collaborations and experimental ad units.
Oh, I got this, Gambelli said she thought when she first walked in, filling a vacancy created by the retirement of Paul Rittenberg, who held the job since the network's inception in 1996.
We spoke as Gambelli was barely settled into her job, and as TV ad sellers and buyers haggled in the annual upfront ad bazaar, where networks look to secure deals for the bulk of their ad time in the coming season.
And the pileup of sexual harassment allegations, she said, "didn't faze me in the least."
"It's just a moment in time and people move on," she said during an interview in her still sparsely decorated office in mid-June. "You have a strong brand and a loyal audience. It's going to work itself out. ... I've been around too long for something like this to deter me."
Even setting aside the distracting internal battles waged in public, Fox News entered this year's marketplace in a strange state. The entire news business is riding high thanks to the can't-look-away Trump administration, and Fox News leads the pack, as it has since George W. Bush was president. At the same time, advertisers live in heightened fear of being dragged into partisan fights.
"Advertisers have been put in a position to choose a side and they have been hesitant to do so," said Lori Cassorla, associate media director at MullenLowe Mediahub. "We have some clients pulling out of news opinion shows and reevaluating their positions in these shows." They aren't necessarily leaving the news networks, she said. Some have just moved their dollars to hard-news programming at other times of the day.
But the network wants its biggest shows to be inviting to marketers, not to telegraph "Enter at your own risk."
If anyone can manage marketers' jitters at Fox News, it's probably Gambelli, who spent more than two decades at NBC Universal, rising through the ranks to become president of network ad sales, responsible for selling high-profile TV properties like "The Voice" and "Sunday Night Football." She also oversaw sales efforts for cable news channels MSNBC and CNBC. It was Gambelli who in 2007 helped broker the first deal with GroupM, valued at $800 million, using commercial ratings in the three days after a program airs, now an industry standard known as C3. She's well-liked in the industry, known for her no-nonsense attitude and ability to get things done.
"If you've dealt with her you know she's direct," said Mel Berning, president and chief revenue officer at A&E Networks. "She keeps it straight and has no agenda. What [Fox News] needs is someone well respected in the industry who will get the job done, and she's that."
While it's not clear whether she'll reinvent the way business is done, said Bill Koenigsberg, president and CEO at Horizon Media, where Gambelli worked most recently (managing marketer ad budgets totaling $7 billion), "she's a symbol of change and a very qualified symbol."
And at a time when NBCU's business was in flux, said Jo Ann Ross, president of ad sales at CBS, Gambelli was a constant. Gambelli departed NBCU in October 2012, less than a month after Linda Yaccarino, now chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships, was promoted to oversee all the company's ad sales efforts.
"If you have the sales gene, which she does, it's a great opportunity to get back on the sales side in a big way and stick a flag in the ground," Ross said. "You have to ignore the politics."
Gambelli, 57, grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., where she still resides. She intended to pursue accounting in college but changed course after taking her first marketing class and realizing that she wouldn't have been happy sitting behind a desk all day. (Gambelli likes to move, something that's been difficult the last few months following knee surgery.)
She didn't set out to blaze trails for women in the workplace, either. But both of her daughters, the first of whom was born when corporate maternity policies were certainly not the norm, have joined her in the TV business. They were also the biggest advocates for her returning to TV's sell side with Fox News.
Gambelli was surprised to see a different culture at Fox News than the outside media had been depicting. There have been stories about women anchors pressured to look a certain way and wear skirts instead of pants, for example—the sort of things one might expect would create a tense environment. "I came in reading what everybody else read," Gambelli said. "I knew enough not to believe all of it. I knew some of the people here, but I was surprised that people came in, loved what they did, loved the work environment."
Gambelli sees the moment as a chance to change the way Fox News has conducted business for two decades. There are opportunities for it to work more closely with Fox Networks Group siblings within 21st Century Fox and to revamp its digital footprint, she said.
"Up to this point, it was growing, growing," Gambelli said. "Now it felt like they were taking a pause, re-evaluating, bringing in new people and being open to new ideas and new thoughts. It felt like the right time."
Still, it won't be easy to shake off the events of the past year. Since last summer, Fox News has lost its founder in Ailes, its biggest star in O'Reilly and its co-president in Shine, all amid allegations related to sexual harassment or how such claims were handled. Megyn Kelly, whose star briefly became incandescent when she tangled with candidate Trump in 2016, decamped for NBC News. And the Fox News primetime lineup that has thoroughly dominated cable news ratings looks very different than it did 12 months earlier.
And then there's the broader news scene, no sea of tranquility itself. JPMorgan Chase and several local advertisers pulled out of an episode of Kelly's new NBC newsmagazine because she interviewed Infowars founder Alex Jones, who has claimed the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax. CNN incurred withering criticsm, and saw the departure of three employees, for a retracted article about a supposed Russian link to President Donald Trump's campaign. The network has also cut ties with on-air talent Reza Aslan (for profane tweets about the president) and New Year's co-host Kathy Griffin (for sharing a photo of what appeared to be the president's bloody, severed head).
News opinion shows both draw the biggest audiences and generate the most polarizing content. Some advertisers have reconsidered their buys in that type of program, Gambelli acknowledged, but she said demand on the whole has surprised her. "The reason why they are evaluating those positions is not because they have a problem with the content," Gambelli said. "They have a problem being targeted and becoming a pawn in this whole Media Matters kind of movement."
Media Matters is one of several media watchdogs that have been pressuring advertisers to boycott mostly right-leaning news programs, regularly sending out press releases to complain about on-air comments at Fox News in particular. Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, said Fox News and others are now holding themselves to a "higher standard" because they know they'll be held accountable. But advertisers shouldn't be attacked any time critics don't like the surrounding comment, he said.
In the chaos, it's easy to forget that advertising in TV news is not like buying time during "Empire," "The Big Bang Theory" or "The Walking Dead." While household-name advertisers buy commercial time in cable news, Fox News' biggest advertisers this year so far primarily consist of pharmaceutical brands like Prevagen and Aleve, financial and insurance companies like Liberty Mutual and Allstate, and direct-response advertisers like MyPillow, Untuckit and Australian Dream cream, according to iSpot.tv. When dozens of big brands pulled out of "The O'Reilly Factor," many of the show's regulars stayed the course.
The news is a great place to sell products, said Mark Young, who works with several Fox News advertisers as CEO of the ad agency Jekyll & Hyde. "News as a rule has a very attentive viewer who is there to gather information," he said. "People don't DVR the news."
Cable news networks aren't having any trouble selling inventory and maintaining their prices, Young added. On the contrary, "We are having a hard time buying as much as we want," he said. And Fox News has the best dollar-for-dollar value in the core 25-to-54 demographic against which TV news is sold and guaranteed, he said.
Even without O'Reilly, Fox News remains the most-watched cable news network. It averaged 2.4 million total viewers in primetime during the second quarter, dominating MSNBC at 1.6 million and CNN with 1.1 million. In the 25-to-54 demo, Fox News averaged 472,000 to MSNBC's 389,000 and CNN's 370,000.
While "Tucker Carlson Tonight," which replaced O'Reilly at 8 p.m., is slightly down from O'Reilly a year ago in total viewers, it has delivered a 16% spike in 25-to-54-year-olds. And the roundtable show "The Five," which took the place of "The Kelly File," is up slightly in the demo.
Still, other networks are starting to nip at Fox News' heels. MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" won among 25-to-54-year-olds in the second quarter, for instance.
While Fox News has the benefit of being live, making it less susceptible to problems like ad-skipping, Gambelli believes that advantage is not guaranteed in perpetuity. The organization needs to prepare for the inevitable upheaval that other networks are already confronting, she said.
One of her first priorities is to more closely align Fox News' ad sales efforts with those of Fox Networks Group. While she wouldn't go so far as to say the sales divisions should eventually come under one umbrella, she does see ways for them to come closer. Fox News might participate in Fox Networks Group's audience platform, for instance, which allows marketers to buy targeted audiences based on more specific criteria than age and gender. The network has lagged behind the broadcast group when it comes to data and analytics, she said, expensive work to do alone.
"Listen, a lot of this buying is going to go to audience," Gambelli said. "We have to be prepared for that. We're still selling the way we always sold."
Fox News may also adopt some of the new ad formats that the network group has been experimenting with, like the six-second ads being championed by YouTube. "In news we can do it even more," Gambelli said. "I'm not regulated to 22 minutes of content and three breaks." Fox News also needs to catch up on screens beyond the living-room TV, according to Gambelli. CNN has been pouring resources into its digital operations, which President Jeff Zucker has predicted will be a $1 billion business in the next five years. "CNN had a change in management," Gambelli said. "They brought in a new way of thinking."
Gambelli said CNN's digital efforts have made it look more modern and fresher on-air, something she hopes happens as Fox News undergoes its own digital reinvention. That could help her sell more ad packages across platforms, something the company doesn't do much today. Under Ailes, Fox News was only doing the basics in digital. "Not to speak ill of the dead," she said, "you had a TV mindset."
So Fox News is working to improve its mobile experience and bring down the walls that have traditionally separated TV, radio and digital. It's investing in its editorial efforts across platforms and is in the process of re-introducing its apps. And the second floor of Fox News headquarters, where Ailes once could close the solid wood door to his office, will be turned into a sleek, open newsroom designed by the architects who renovated the Washington Post's newsroom with the goal of facilitating collaboration among Fox News' TV and digital employees, which have long represented disparate parts of its newsgathering efforts.
Fox news is also looking to expand into other forms of programming, like long-form news shows in the vein of "OBJECTified" with TMZ founder Harvey Levin, as well as some history-type programming, Abernethy said.
If the tides may be changing internally, that doesn't mean viewers will notice much of a difference on-air. But efforts to diversify digitally should help attract younger audiences who aren't necessarily getting the news from TV, she said.
Fox News has one of the oldest audiences on TV with a median age of nearly 62. But that's not something Gambelli believes the network needs to change. "I don't think the news is going to get any younger," she said.
"We have a very large and loyal audience," Abernethy agreed. "A bulk of our revenue comes from subscription fees. They love their cable subscribers. To change the product to get a 28-year-old would be foolish."