Defund Fox News
Like sports channels, the conservative propaganda network makes most of its money from people who aren’t viewers. What if it didn’t?
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Look at this shit:
No, really. Look at this shit:
Again—and not to put too fine a point on it—but just look at this shit:
Fox News would be a joke if it weren’t so bloody serious. The conservative propaganda network is less a debilitating cancer metastasizing through American life than a xenomorph that has burst through the chest of our body politic and is now on a full-blown rampage, slicing and dicing every good thing—the Constitution, whatever’s left of the New Deal, the Muppets—that gets in its way.
Fox News helped give us Donald Trump, a twice-impeached president who spent four years watching people flatter him on the network, fumed and Tweeted when that flattery was insufficiently obsequious, and otherwise ran the country about as well he ran his casino. It pushed the Big Dumb Lie that Trump was very unfairly cheated out of reelection by, like, the ghost of Hugo Chavez or something, which in turn helped spur an insurrectionist riot at the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead. It broadcast coronavirus misinformation an estimated 13,551 times last year, denouncing public health measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing, downplaying and hiding death numbers, and giving a platform to contrarian quacks like Scott Atlas and Alex Berenson, all while allowing its own employees to work from home and reminding them to wear masks.
The brainchild of GOP Goebbels-cum-paranoid sex creep Roger Ailes, Fox News has always been a Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cup of conservative political messaging and reactionary cultural grievance, devoted to fair and balanced consideration of the important national questions that liberals don’t want you to ask, such as What About That One New Black Panther Guy At The Polls? and Who, Exactly, In Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign Murdered Seth Rich? The network is where you can find Rudy Giuliani wishing for Clinton’s beheading. Where Sean Hannity promulgates non-existent deep state conspiracies and been making unsubstantiated voter fraud claims about Democrats in the Philadelphia area since … 2016. Where Laura Ingraham, not a virologist, lets viewers know that that the “biggest lie is, is that restaurants are spreaders of COVID.” Where Jesse Waters is impressed by the “great stuff” that QAnon is uncovering. Where Tucker Carlson, a self-proclaimed “freelance thinker” who (successfully!) fought off a defamation suit by arguing that his own viewers know he’s peddling malarkey, makes this face, a lot. It was the Triple-A farm club for the griftastic Trump Administration, and remains home to an entire cinematic universe of ghouls and goombas who in another time and place would be getting their limbs severed for looking at Obi-Wan Kenobi the wrong way, ranging from non-economist economist Larry Kudlow to Facebook power user Dan Bongino to—wait, is that Geraldo’s music? By God, it is!
Again, this would all be darkly funny if it didn’t shape the world in decidedly dark and unfunny ways. Studies have found that Fox News availability and viewing significantly increases support for Republicans in elections. Polls have show that the network’s viewers are more likely to approve of Trump’s presidency, more likely to believe conspiracy theories critical of Democrats, more likely to believe the press exaggerated the risks of the coronavirus, and have taken the virus less seriously than people who get their news from other sources. (Media markets where Hannity is particularly popular had higher COVID-19 death rates early in the pandemic). Anecdotally, Fox News has brain poisoned America’s cable-watching elders, resulting in what journalist Luke O’Neil describes as “failed marriages and estranged parental relationships” born from a loved one finding “some kind of deep, addictive comfort” in the network’s “anger and paranoia, and be[coming] a different person.”
For conservative-minded folks, there’s no real issue, here. Fox News is cool and good, a reliable misinformation dealer that’s available 24/7—oh, and if the network ever dilutes its product or calls the state of Arizona for Joe Biden, there’s plenty of the hard, uncut stuff over at Newsmax and OANN. For everyone else, however, Fox News is a problem. Worse still, it’s a problem that a whole lot of us are subsidizing—by which I mean, paying cold, hard cash out of our own pockets to support. And adding insult to injury, we’re providing that support without even realizing it.
How so? The answer lies in your cable or satellite television bill.
Ever wondered why big-time sports are swimming in cash?
Still, the main reason Russell Westbrook earns $40-plus million a year and the National Collegiate Athletic Association clears nearly $1 billion annually to stage a single basketball tournament is because networks such as ESPN pay billions for the right to broadcast games. And the reason networks can afford those gobsmacking sums is because they make fistfuls of money from people who seldom or never watch sports.
Cable channels generate revenue in two ways. First, advertisers pay them to air commercials, which is why you’re now humming scoop, there it is! Second, cable and satellite providers—such as Comcast or DirecTV—pay channels a per-subscriber rate for the right to carry them. Those rates vary widely. Relatively unpopular networks cost as little as 5 cents per month, per subscriber. Sports networks cost a whole lot more. ESPN’s four costliest offerings (ESPN, ESPN2, SEC Network, ACC Network) total $10.28, while NFL Network ($1.79), Fox Sports 1 ($1.12), and Big Ten Network ($0.59) are also among the 25 most expensive channels on pay TV.
Why are sports networks able to demand high prices? New Yorker writer Adam Davidson calls rates “a fear tax”—a measure of how scared cable or satellite providers are that viewers will be angry if a particular channel isn’t available. As Davidson explains, channels with relatively small but ferociously dedicated audiences can leverage that ferocity to make more in subscriber fees than more popular networks:
People might love to watch “Law & Order” reruns all day long, and “Mr. Robot” has a loyal audience, but viewers won’t run into the streets to protest if they can’t see the latest episode of those shows.
The fear tax has been very, very good to ESPN, which for years has been a golden goose for its parent company, Disney. In 2019, ESPN generated an estimated $11.4 billion of revenue. About $2.3 billion of that came from advertising. Meanwhile, $8.6 billion came from subscriber fees. That’s a lot! And pay TV providers don’t eat that cost. Instead, they pass it on to their customers—which means that every month, the roughly 80 million American households that get cable or satellite television each hand ESPN about $10, whether they watch ESPN’s channels or not.
Most don’t. According to Variety, just 21.6 percent of all pay TV households watch ESPN regularly (13.2 percent watch ESPN2, while less than four percent watch the SEC and ACC networks). That doesn’t mean the sports network is unpopular: in a fractured viewing environment, 17 million-ish regular viewers is nothing to sneeze at. But it does mean that ESPN’s bottom line is being heavily subsidized by the 63 million pay TV subscribers who seldom or never use the company’s product.
How heavily? Let’s be generous and assume that 25 percent of all pay TV households regularly watch ESPN’s networks. If just those customers were paying subscriber fees, the company would earn $2.15 billion a year—a nice chunk of change, but far less than the $8.6 billion it currently rakes in.
That extra $6-plus billion goes a long way toward making ESPN profitable. It makes it easier for the network to spend about $7.3 billion over 12 years for the College Football Playoff—a broadcast package of just nine games annually—and roughly $8 million a year for Stephen A. Smith’s voluble services. It also represents an enormous and mostly unwitting transfer of wealth from people who don’t care about sports to people who do, an alchemic business model that transforms enthusiasm for “Law and Order” marathons and “Guy’s Grocery Games” into skyrocketing franchise values, rising salary caps, and absolutely mind-numbing college football strength coach salaries.
Fox News benefits from the same trick. Despite counting just 17.2 percent of pay TV households as regular viewers—about the same as Nickelodeon, AMC, and the Disney Channel—the network commands a $1.72 subscriber rate.
That’s the fourth-largest of any channel, behind only ESPN, TNT, and NFL Network. Since 2004, Fox News has leveraged the fear tax to maximum effect when negotiating with cable and satellite providers, increasing its rates by almost 800 percent. Today, the network boasts an estimated 60 percent profit margin on roughly $3 billion in annual revenue. About $2 billion of that amount comes from subscriber fees, and roughly $1.6 billion of those fees are paid by cable and satellite customers who seldom or never watch Fox News.
In other words: the company collects more than half of the money it makes from 66 million American households that don’t use its product.
This is, of course, nice work if you can get it, a hidden-in-plain-sight subsidy to make a sports stadium planner blush. It’s why Fox News can hand Hannity $30 million a year to complain about “overpaid media elites” and Carlson $10 million annually to spend an entire day trying—and ultimately, failing—to locate “the famous QAnon.” It’s why the network can respond to advertising boycotts costing tens of millions of dollars by giving Carlson more to do while stridently asserting that it won’t cave to “agenda-driven intimidation.” It’s why the network doesn’t have to care—at all—when veteran broadcaster and reporter Shepard Smith, who worked at the network for 23 years, says his former colleagues’ “lies” have “done us harm as a nation,” and why Smith’s old 7 PM, relatively-straight nightly news slot is now home to yet another hour of right-wing opinion programming. When Fox News spreads more misinformation about mail-in voting than Russian bots, or fires the political editor who correctly called Arizona for Biden, or cheerleads a mass attack on the Capitol, it doesn’t pay an actual price.
But if you’re a cable or satellite customer? Regardless of your political persuasion, you most certainly do.
What if you didn’t?
That’s the idea behind UnFox My Cable Box, a social media campaign created by Media Matters, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that acts as a watchdog for conservative media. The goal is simple: create public pressure on pay TV providers to remove Fox News from their basic channel packages—the bundles you receive just by signing up for cable or satellite—and instead offer the network as an a la carte add-on requiring a separate and additional fee, akin to HBO or NBA League Pass.
(The UnFox My Cable Box website also has a calculator to figure out how much you’ve personally given Fox News. My total? Roughly $340 over the last five years. Yikes.)
Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a piece supporting that goal, arguing that:
Suppose Discovery Channel went haywire and encouraged viewers to drink arsenic to lose weight? Or Cartoon Network was bought by a tobacco company and encouraged children to try smoking? Or MSNBC pundits called on viewers to burn down police stations?
We would agree that advertisers should not support their programs and that cable channels should not force Americans to subsidize them.
This is a good point! It’s also much easier said than done. Bundling channels has been the backbone of the pay TV business forever, and a stabilizing force for networks and providers alike—one that they’re loath to dismantle. Cable and satellite companies are not required by law to offer a la carte programming, and legislative efforts to change that have failed: a 2013 Senate bill that would have given providers incentives to unbundle went nowhere, while a first-of-its-kind Maine law mandating that cable companies allow customers to purchase individual channels instead of packages was recently struck down in federal court. (Comcast, Disney, Fox Cable, and NBC/Universal were among the companies that sued the state).
A recent Bloomberg article lays out other factors that make removing Fox News from basic pay TV a heavy lift: providers have existing contracts with the network that are difficult or impossible to cancel; big providers that also own other news channels, such as Comcast with MSNBC, could run afoul of a federal rule that prohibits them from giving their channels preferential treatment; conservative politicians would likely scream bloody murder and launch grandstanding investigations of any providers with the chutzpah to cut off a media outlet that’s essential to Republicans holding and exercising power.
Still, none of that means the rest of us are doomed to pick up the tab for Fox News, in perpetuity, until our dying sun expands and swallows the Earth. Like the network itself, cable and satellite companies care first and foremost about making money—and in recent years, they’ve been losing millions of “cord-cutting” customers to live TV and on-demand streaming services, most of which offer cheaper and more focused viewing options.
In response, pay TV providers have looked for ways to reduce the size and cost of their basic bundles. One popular method? Dropping pricey sports channels and regional sports networks that only are watched by a minority of customers. Fox News is similar, a relatively expensive channel that the vast majority of viewers ignore. If that same majority demanded change by threatening to cut the cord in favor of streaming options that don’t charge a hidden Hannity tax—or better yet, started following through on that threat—then cable and satellite providers might conclude that, actually, the network belongs in the same category as Cinemax and the Tennis Channel. You want to watch Carlson argue that George Floyd’s death somehow proves that the attack on the Capitol was actually part of a liberal plot to change the “old order” of America? Fine. You’ll just have to pay for it—directly.
Of course, it’s easy to predict how Fox News and its allies would react to the network getting bumped from basic and losing its $1.6 billion annual subsidy: very, very badly, and with a whole bunch of wailing and teeth-gnashing about cancel culture, the tolerant left, and freedom of speech.
Cases in point? Last month, Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, both California Democrats, sent a letter to major pay TV providers asking if:
a) They had taken any action against Fox News and other right-wing channels based on their coverage of the November elections, the attack on the Capitol, and the coronavirus pandemic;
b) They planned to continue carry those channels now and “beyond any contract renewal date.”
Along the same lines, CNN media analyst Oliver Darcy wrote in January that:
We regularly discuss what the Big Tech companies have done to poison the public conversation by providing large platforms to bad-faith actors who lie, mislead, and promote conspiracy theories. But what about TV companies that provide platforms to networks such as Newsmax, One America News -- and, yes, Fox News?
Somehow, these companies have escaped scrutiny and entirely dodged this conversation. That should not be the case anymore. After Wednesday's incident of domestic terrorism on Capitol Hill, it is time TV carriers face questions for lending their platforms to dishonest companies that profit off of disinformation and conspiracy theories. After all, it was the very lies that Fox, Newsmax, and OAN spread that helped prime President Trump's supporters into not believing the truth: that he lost an honest and fair election.
Yes, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin and others are responsible for the lies they peddle to their audiences. But the TV companies that beam them into millions of homes around the country also bear some responsibility.
It’s important to note, here, that neither Darcy nor Eshoo and McNerney were demanding that Fox News be taken off the air entirely, or subject to any sort of serious government oversight, or even removed from basic pay packages. They were simply suggesting that cable and satellite providers answer a few questions and maybe think about doing something to discourage an endless torrent of harmful bulls__t.
Nevertheless, conservative media responded by pitching a self-righteous fit. The Wall Street Journal, a first-rate news-gathering organization welded to an op-ed page too fantastical for Bret Stephens, labeled Democrats “the censorship party.” The National Review called for Fox News’ critics to “re-familiarize themselves with the First Amendment.” Carlson accused CNN of “working to force the Fox News Channel off the air and run this company out of business,” warning his viewers that an unprecedented “crackdown on America's civil liberties is coming.”
Crackdown! Unprecedented! Sounds bad. Orwellian, even. Only here’s the thing about defunding Fox News: it has nothing to do with censorship, the First Amendment, or civil liberities. Zippy. Nada. The network and its on-air personalities have a fairly broad right to speak—even when they’re spewing politically expedient lies and half-truths, or doctoring photos to make street protests in Seattle look extra scary. But they do not have a right to anyone’s money, particularly from the pockets of people who just want to watch Bones reruns on TNT. Consumers demanding that Fox News be removed from basic cable and satellite is a bottom-up, free market, no-government-involved solution to the pressing social problem of harmful disinformation, the kind of social solution conservatives purportedly support.
Would Fox News lose a bunch of money if Americans were truly free to pay for the channels they actually want? Absofreakinlutely! That’s the whole point. But the network also would be free to pull itself back up by the bootstraps. Indeed, there’s no reason Fox News couldn’t make up for a $1.6 billion loss—provided its loyal fans are willing to pay the low, low price of $9.47 a month for inimitable content like this:
Financial consequences have a way of changing behavior. Last month, the voting-tech company Smartmatic filed a $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox News, alleging it participated in a conspiracy to spread lies about its involvement in election fraud; the very next day, the network cancelled a show hosted by Lou Dobbs, who previously said on air that Trump’s opponents in the government were guilty of “treason” and that it would be “criminal” for Republicans to recognize Biden’s victory. Ideally, the mere threat of losing its sweet, sweet bundle subsidies would act as a kind of fear tax and force Fox News to moderate its increasingly batshit, OANN-chasing behavior—ending its reported purge of “real journalists” in order to double down on Divorced Facebook Dad Takes, curbing its predilection for career liars like Kayleigh McEnany, and otherwise becoming more like Mitt Romney and less like Ted Cruz. Until that happens, however, the network’s steadfast commitment to making the world a worse and dumber place is reason enough to boot it from basic pay TV. After all, it’s one thing for the My Pillow guy to shovel cash into Carlson and company’s endlessly raging furnace of naked grift and ginned-up grievance. It’s quite another for the rest of us to do the same.
This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.