Fox News opened up its studios to advertisers on Wednesday to promote a message of transparency and trust at its first-ever upfront.
The presentation came as the news behemoth deals with yet another round of crisis surrounding on-air hosts Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson. Both hosts' shows have lost advertisers over the last week as they deal with separate controversies. (A group of protestors gathered outside of Fox News headquarters in midtown Manhattan as the presentation to advertisers was going on inside.)
Fox News made a statement condemning Pirro's comments, saying "They do not reflect those of the network and we have addressed the matter with her directly." On Monday, Carlson addressed the audio tapes in a seven-minute monologue, saying "we will never bow to the mob," and that there are groups that have been looking to to kill his show from day one.
Brand boycotts certainly aren't new to Fox News, but heading into the upfronts—when networks look to secure a bulk of their ad commitments for the new season—Marianne Gambelli, who leads ad sales for the organization, says she is frustrated by the confusion surrounding brand safety.
"It really started with YouTube in the digital space about two years ago and now that's been sort of carried through almost without any accountability," she tells Ad Age. "So all of a sudden something isn't brand-safe and there isn't any rationale for it, there's no reason for it. You have to look at every piece of content through the eyes of the beholder, and I think that's what gets lost in the messaging."
Gambelli says there's a distinction that needs to be made between what is truly not safe for brands and what is simply a message that someone dislikes. "Most of the time, nothing is even happening on our air, so why isn't it a brand-safe environment?"
"Brand safety is being used too liberally and not necessarily fairly," she continues.
Gambelli says the issues with Fox News hosts (Carlson is receiving backlash for audio clips released by Media Matters of him making offensive remarks between 2006 and 2011 on air with shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge, while Pirro made a statement that Rep. Ilhan Omar is "Sharia-compliant" because she wears a traditional hijab head covering) have resulted in scaring some advertisers away from the network's opinion programs. "But they aren't leaving the network," she says—just shifting into more of the news programming.
Gambelli says she has heard from marketers who are frustrated that they need to steer clear of some of the opinion shows, which are among the network's highest-rated, due to the "noise" surrounding them. During her prepared remarks to more than 100 agencies and clients on Wednesday, Gambelli said, "The voice of a few shouldn't stop you from marketing to consumers who will buy your brand." It's a statement, she later said, she has heard directly from clients.
Still, at least in the immediate future, that noise is expected to persist. So Fox News is leaning more heavily into the news side of its business.
During the presentation, Suzanne Scott, CEO of Fox News, pointed to how the company has invested in its news-gathering efforts and infrastructure in recent years. The company is also emphasizing how it is watched across the country, not only in right-leaning markets.
To stress this point, Fox News played video interviews with some of its viewers who described the network as a place where "they don't sensationalize the news," "they deliver the news accurately and honestly" and "they get to the point and tell me what I need to know now."
Gambelli said its audience is affluent and highly educated—attractive qualities for advertisers. Fox News is also the most-watched cable channel for the third consecutive year.
The optimism continued in a panel moderated by Jay Wallace, president and executive editor, that featured talent including Fox News mainstays Bret Baier, Laura Ingraham, Maria Bartiromo, Harris Faulkner and Neil Cavuto.
"In primetime we are fighting for the average person out there," Ingraham said. "It has an opinion that's no-holds-barred, straight-talk and speaks to the American understanding and tradition.... They trust the brands that advertise on Fox. They love the companies that are unafraid because they speak to all of America. They aren't selling to one group or this group, they want to sell products across the board to the American people. They are grateful to the companies that advertise."
"This is a great time to be an American. These are the good old days.... Pretty much right now, I don't see how it can get much better than this. People are generally in a good mood and they love Fox," she continued.
This marks Gambelli's second year running ad sales for Fox News—and she will take on a bigger role as the head of ad sales for Fox once the deal with Walt Disney closes.
For the first time, Fox News will be sold alongside new Fox's sports and entertainment programming during the upfronts. The news portion of the business will get stage time alongside the other two verticals during Fox's upfront presentation later this spring and Gambelli will package all three where it makes sense. The goal is to move its news and entertainment business at the same time, she says.