Fighting Fox News has a next step.
The first step – which is still very much a work in progress — is to firmly establish in the minds of the general public that Fox is not news, it is something else entirely: something profoundly dangerous.
It’s not an alternative form of news. It’s the opposite of news. It’s a propaganda and misinformation network that poisons our political discourse, turns Americans against each other, and incites insurrection, all the while enriching a parasitical far-right billionaire and his family. It’s instead of news.
Kudos to the New York Times and Nicholas Confessore for realizing that Fox News in general and Tucker Carlson in particular are not news, but rather a huge news story.
Meanwhile, we need to be preparing for the second step, which is to stop paying for it — or, more specifically, for those of us who think Fox is dangerous to stop being forced to pay for it.
Right now, if you pay a monthly bill to a cable company or other TV provider, about $2 of it goes directly to Fox News whether you like it or not. And Fox News ends up in your “bundle” of available channels, whether you like it or not.
For Fox News, those fees add up to about $1.8 billion a year — or about 50 percent more than the network makes from advertising.
The fees that Fox charges cable companies – and that cable companies pass on to you – are called licensing fees, or carriage fees. Without them, Fox News would be a losing financial proposition. Hell, all of Fox Corporation would be a losing financial proposition.
“The carriage fees prop up the entire Fox operation and allow them to be as destructive as they are because they don’t have to respond to market forces,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America.
Those market forces include advertiser boycotts. Major advertisers have largely abandoned Tucker Carlson Tonight, for instance, in response to his racist incitement. But Fox doesn’t care as long as the carriage fees keep coming in.
Fox News’s going rate is already the highest in cable, with the exception of ESPN. Fox’s $2.00 rate is nearly twice what CNN gets ($1.06). MSNBC gets $0.36, only slightly more than Fox Business ($0.29), according to S&P Global.
For a number of different reasons, getting cable companies to “unbundle” Fox or refuse to pay such a high fee will be an enormous challenge.
But the key is persuading them that the demand from the small percentage of their customers who watch Fox News is more than offset by a much larger percentage of customers who consider it dangerous to their communities and don’t want to pay for it anymore.
Fox will be renegotiating two thirds of its licensing fees starting in a few months.
Unfortunately, conventional wisdom at the moment is that Fox is actually going to demand even more money from cable companies, and get it.
Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch is sounding positively giddy in his investor calls. In a March call, for instance, Morgan Stanley head of media research Benjamin Swinburne asked him: “What’s allowing you to drive rate and grow the revenues even with cord-cutting?”
Fox News remains the most-viewed channel on cable, Murdoch said. “Look, I think we are an essential part of the bundle… An essential partner, a growingly important part of the cable bundle.” He concluded: “We have the utmost confidence that we’ll continue to have industry-leading pricing growth at FOX News.”
Murdoch’s ace in the hole is that cable companies are hugely averse to losing customers – and they worry, with reason, that if they cut Fox News, or if they take it out of the basic “bundle,” its slavishly devoted viewers are likely to switch carriers, even though that’s a big hassle.
There are ways the cable companies and other distributors could make paying for Fox News optional without losing its viewers: They could offer alternate bundles, some with Fox and some without; or they could switch to an a la carte system, in which subscribers choose which stations they want and only pay for them.
But the current system has made them an awful lot of money, and still does. So they’re loath to give it up. It also serves the media conglomerates who make all-or-nothing deals with distributors, forcing them to carry less-popular channels in order to get the stronger ones.
And that’s not the only way that media conglomeration is an obstacle to holding Fox accountable. Two of the major cable companies that are powerful enough to conceivably stand up to Fox — Comcast and AT&T – own or recently spun off direct competitors to Fox News, making them susceptible to lawsuits charging unfair competition. Comcast own NBC Universal, which includes NBC, MSNBC and CNBC. AT&T shareholders owns most of Warner Bros Discovery, which includes CNN and HBO.
Free-lance writer Karl Bode has written extensively about “disrupting the symbiotic disinfo feedback loop between television and online outlets” by giving customers the option of not paying for purveyors of false news like Fox.
In The Reboot, Bode quoted one expert:
“You’d kill those stations in a heartbeat if they didn’t get bundled in every cable package,” said Christopher Terry, assistant professor of media law at the University of Minnesota. “All of those outlets thrive in the delivery to the audience they get by being included in every package, but in an a la carte cable package, only a handful of the true believer crowd would be willing to pay extra for them.”
“Imagine if they had to survive in an actual market-based scenario where the number of viewers they could have was limited by the people who would pay to have access to that specific content,” he added. “You’d cut them off at the knees and use their own rhetoric to do so while making cable companies more accountable to the local customer base.”
Historically, around renewal time, Fox has launched massive ad campaigns encouraging viewers to contact their cable companies and insist that they keep Fox News in the lineup.
That boosts what is called a “demand score.” But a demand score can also go down, if people call to complain.
So as renewal season approaches, Media Matters for America intends to run a massive consumer campaign warning people that their cable company is about to raise their rates, Carusone said. The message will be: “Call them and say you don’t want your rates to increase because of Fox.”
It’s “exactly what Fox does, only the opposite,” Carusone said. “Your call to your cable company — I promise — is getting logged and tracked.” Media Matters has already been collecting the names of would-be callers on its UnFoxMyCableBox website.
A Reuters special report last October exposed the extraordinary news that AT&T wasn’t just funding One America News — a network that has been even more enthusiastic than Fox in spreading malignant conspiracy theories and propaganda — it actually help create it.
Though OAN never had anywhere near the fan base of Fox, that was good news for anti-Fox advocates.
“That was a sign of cable companies giving in to consumer pressure,” Carusone said.
Another source of change: Fox traditionally uses leverage to get the best deal for Fox News, threatening to withhold other properties if necessary. But having sold the film and TV assets held by 21st Century Fox to Disney in 2019, Fox has less leverage than it used to.
And public opposition to Fox News is growing.
“The landscape has changed. People see Fox as more toxic now,” Carusone said. “They have the least leverage they’ve ever had, and they have the most headwinds.”
The growing number of cord-cutters also bodes well for those who don’t want to pay for Fox. Streaming digital providers are by nature better positioned to offer a la carte offerings than cable companies.
In fact, there are two, little-known ways for some viewers to avoid paying for Fox News already – one on cable, one on streaming.
Verizon offers plans with very limited options that can be designed to not include Fox News
And Spectrum internet customers can sign up for Spectrum’s TV Choice streaming service and pick and choose the stations they want.
Grassroots activist Julie Greenberg, who helped found the Defenders of Democracy Against Disinformation website, said that the battle against Fox News hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves from progressive groups – nor from people organizing against disinformation.
Robert Reich’s Inequality Media group, for instance, has a “petition to deplatform Fox now” that seems to only serve as a fundraising device.
Greenberg listened in on a major conference on “Disinformation and the Danger of Democracy,” held by the University of Chicago and the Atlantic earlier this month, “and if there was a word about Fox News, I missed it,” she said. “Everybody’s just dealing with social media.’
But increased attention could be coming. As Substack Popular Information newsletter writer Judd Legum wrote last month, “The massive subsidy Fox News receives from non-viewers has always been concerning for anyone who doesn’t share its right-wing political sensibility. But now that the network’s highest-rated host is a vehicle for pro-Russian propaganda, the issue has taken on a fresh urgency.”