Fox News Touts Election Coverage, Ratings, Viewer Loyalty and Engagement in Upfront Presentations

Fox News

The cable news network doesn't have new programming to showcase but is highlighting the consistency of such primetime stars as Bill O'Reilly and "The Five," which replaced "The Glenn Beck Show."

NEW YORK – Fox News doesn’t have any new shows to present during upfront advertising season. So how do advertising sales executives at the News Corp. network pitch media buyers this year?

They have prepared a 20-minute pitch for buyers in the digital age that is designed to be snappier than the usual 40-minute presentation. The pitch highlights that not only has Fox News been leading cable news ratings for more than a decade, it breeds audience loyalty as viewers spend more time with content across the network's various new-media platforms. And it emphasizes that this election year will bring in more viewers, some of whom the network predicts will stick around longer-term. 

"We don't have new programming, but a good story is the elections drive ratings," Roger Domal, vp sales, explained one key message to advertisers and media buyers. The fall election is "the Super Bowl of cable news," but even beyond that, Fox News "is as safe and stable a buy you can make." The bottom line for advertisers: “If your brand is a leader, it belongs with the news leader," Domal said. "Great brands go together.”

While all news networks tend to get ratings bumps in election years, Fox News’ hope is to retain new viewers. Executives point to 2009, the year following the last presidential election, when it also saw ratings benefits. Ad sales officials will highlight this in their upfront meetings with an eye toward hooking buyers ready to make commitments beyond the elections in November. "We brought people to the set, and they stayed because they liked it," Domal said about 2009, pointing out that CNN has historically seen shorter-lived ratings spikes amid major breaking news.

“An election year is something all the news networks can rely on [for] stronger ratings,” said Brad Adgate, senior vp/director of research at media buyer Horizon Media. But with Fox News’ “steady audience, it delivers strong viewers compared to its rivals even on a slow news night.”

Why can Fox News keep viewers? "It is because we are entertaining as well as newsworthy," Domal argued, explaining another core message of his upfront meetings. "People on both sides of the political [spectrum] watch us in primetime. Some tune in to see their opinions get validated, others do it because they are opposed."

Helping the all-news network’s upfront pitch is its history of beating CNN and MSNBC in viewership, often even when combining the ratings for the two competitors. In one part of his upfront presentation, Domal highlights that Bill O'Reilly has been on top of the 8 p.m. cable news race for 135 consecutive months as of the end of February -- while competitors have trotted out 49 show variations to challenge him. In January, Fox News celebrated 10 years on top of the cable news viewership rankings.

Year-to-date, Fox News has averaged 1.09 million total viewers for the full day, compared with MSNBC's 464,000 and CNN's 445,000, according to Nielsen. In primetime, Fox News has averaged 1.94 million, again more than double the combined CNN and MSNBC viewership of 788,000 and 843,000, respectively.

In February, Fox News had a total average viewership of 1.9 million people watching live and same day on DVRs in primetime, according to Nielsen. That compared to 825,000 for MSNBC and 805,000 for CNN.

Ad sales executives will in their upfront meetings also highlight that Fox News viewers watch the channel for 25 minutes on average, which means they see three to four ad pods and stay tuned longer than audiences at competitors. “They don't surf as much,” Domal explained, adding that audiences for such primetime shows as O’Reilly’s feature better brand recall and higher ad likability. “We reach a different level of commitment and attention. Our lineup is appointment viewing, and people stay tuned during ads, because they are drawn to the hosts and don’t view ads negatively.”

One additional advantage for Fox News this year is that The Five, the show that replaced The Glenn Beck Show last year, has delivered virtually the same ratings. Network sources said selling Beck's show was a challenge amid ad boycotts that led to resistance from buyers. “The Five helps an enormous amount,” acknowledged Paul Rittenberg, executive vp advertising sales. “We knew we could sell it, but we did not know that it would do that well." Near the end of his show, Beck drew 1.61 million viewers, including 387,000 in the core news demo of 25-to-54-year-olds. The Five in February attracted 1.65 million and 372,000, respectively.

Of course, digital also is a key part of the Fox News upfront pitch. Domal will emphasize that Facebook and Twitter are increasingly part of the network’s news presence, arguing that TV loyalty also drives digital usage. Plus, he will mention that the Fox News iPhone app has been downloaded 4.6 million times and its iPad app 1.2 million. 

The network also struck a year-long election coverage sponsorship deal with Infiniti that uses polling tools across TV and digital and says it is open to helping clients with digital solutions online, on mobile and via other digital ideas they might have. 

The Fox News ad sales team, which now writes more than $60 million in digital ad business, also will share some figures that Rittenberg said are designed to show that “two plus two equals five when people advertise with us on multiple screens.” He added: “Our audience is very engaged. You could argue that we were Facebook before Facebook [launched].”

As media buyer and agency audiences settle down in a room before the Fox News upfront presentation formally begins, the network’s ad sales people will play a video shot with a steady cam. It takes the viewers through the Fox News office space and studios until Shepard Smith welcomes the audience onscreen.

The presentation itself uses and emphasizes such phrases as "Where some surf, others stay," "loyalty beyond reason" and "America's leadership headquarters." 

It also showcases election coverage with lead Bret Baier and such primetime stars as O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

The videos, which include funny scenes, are partly designed to highlight the look, feel and mix of news and entertainment of the network. “Arguing about politics won't help, but showing we look better does,” said Rittenberg.

Another video that resembles a Facebook timeline highlights the big changes and news stories of the 15 years since Fox News launched. Back in 1996 when News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch unveiled Fox News, a clip of which is part of the video, Domal says Bill Clinton was president, Mark Zuckerberg was in his teens -- and he had a huge cell phone, which the ad sales executive has handy to show to his upfront crowd.

Fox News executives started their upfront presentations this month on the Fox studio lot in Los Angeles to get the word out early in the upfront season. They will go to Chicago this week, where Baier will make an appearance, and dozens of other major cities through May. The schedule allows the network to start its upfront efforts early. In New York, the network will do client meetings. 

The year 2011 was a record advertising revenue year for Fox News, according to sources. SNL Kagan estimates the ad haul at $673.8 million out of total revenue of $1.63 billion, with this year coming in at an estimated $729 million, which would mean 8.2 percent growth out of total revenue of nearly $1.80 billion.

Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne recently estimated that Fox News would bring in revenue of $1.6 billion and operating cash flow of $975 million for the fiscal year that ends in June, with others estimating the latter at close to $1 billion. Either way, Fox News is seen as a News Corp. crown jewel. Swinburne estimated its fair-market value at $12.4 billion, making it News Corp.’s most valuable business in his model. 

Meanwhile, the Fox Business Network, which has revamped its programming in hopes of improving its ratings, does not get an upfront presentation right now. Fox News sales executives say its financial clients tend to buy outside the upfront rhythm and follow the calendar year, but they sell it in combination with Fox News when desired. However, the business news channel is likely to get a sales push later in the year when it has some experience with the new lineup and potential new opportunities to present, Rittenberg said.

So what are Fox News’ growth expectations for the upfront selling season? Executives say they prefer signing ad deals to making growth promises. “One of the many good things about working for [Fox News chairman and CEO] Roger [Ailes] is that he doesn't make predictions,” Rittenberg said. 

Without going into detail, he predicted overall growth in the upfront, saying, “The economy is better early this year than I would have thought.” Selling inventory for this election year, advertising prices grew about 8 percent at Fox News last year, with this upfront season’s growth rate likely to come in a bit lower.

The network's sales team also is looking for new business opportunities. The core portion of this year’s Fox News upfront presentation is designed so that ad sales executives can use it in one-on-one meetings for the rest of the year, including for “people who may not traditionally buy news,” said Domal. “We made this a bit of an evergreen, and we can swap out parts that emphasize the election coverage late in the year and add in custom content.” 

Rittenberg said that reaching new ad clients will be part of the Fox News growth strategy ahead. “We are looking at growing the pie,” he said. “When you have half of the ratings points, it is hard to get more than half of people's budgets. So, we will look to convince some new [ad] categories, such as tech or video game companies.”


Twitter: @georgszalai