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On May 31, TBS acted quickly to put out a growing firestorm after popular host Samantha Bee used the c-word to describe first daughter Ivanka Trump on her Full Frontal show. The morning after Bee made the comment, the network sent out an unambiguous apology from the comedian and released a strong statement saying that she was right to apologize for her “vile and inappropriate language.”
Following the backlash, network management will have more scrutiny over Bee’s show, a source with knowledge of the situation told The Hollywood Reporter. The plan is for management to work with the show to prevent another incident that could potentially scare advertisers and draw condemnation from both sides of the political aisle. (TBS declined to comment on the record.)
The network had previously given Bee essentially full creative license, with a source close to the company saying that management has supported her artistic vision of the show.
While Bee’s slur drew wide-ranging protests, she’s used the c-word on her show before, though not directed at a member of the Trump family or administration. The network operates under a set of standards and practices that dictated the bleeping of the slur.
“I still wish they wouldn’t have apologized,” said comedian Kathy Griffin, who pointed out that Bee’s remark was scripted. “She’s a comic — not a news anchor.”
The apologies from Bee and TBS came only about an hour after a digital advertiser, the car marketplace Autotrader.com, pledged to cut ties with the show. Later the same day, insurance giant State Farm also pledged to stop advertising on the show.
The campaign to punish Bee for crossing a line (her words) was only the latest in a series of efforts that have harnessed the power of social media and the corporate fear of public shaming to get television networks to punish their employees for going too far.
ABC, in particular, has been a boycott target at least twice in recent months: in February, for a comment made by The View co-host Joy Behar, and last week, after the namesake of the hit show Roseanne made racist remarks on Twitter.
In early April, media watchers openly questioned whether Fox News primetime host Laura Ingraham would survive an advertiser boycott that thinned out her show’s roster of sponsoring brands but ultimately did not fell her. There was a fledgling effort to hold MSNBC responsible for problematic blog posts written more than a decade ago by weekend host Joy Reid, though a source close to the network said that no advertisers dropped out as a result of the campaign.
Industry analyst Andrew Tyndall, however, is skeptical about the power of these campaigns. “They have zero impact on the primary revenue stream for cable TV networks, which is from subscription fees rather than from advertising revenue,” he said. “The pool of potential advertisers for a boycotted show is usually large enough that any dropped spot can usually be replaced (if not immediately, then soon enough).”
What all of these recent efforts have in common is partisan politics: Bee, Behar and Reid are outspoken critics of the president, while Ingraham is a strong supporter.
“Advertiser boycotts are the latest cudgel being used to retaliate by aggrieved parties,” said Joseph Peyronnin, a Hofstra University journalism professor and former executive for Telemundo, Fox News and CBS News who cited the “chilling effect” of such campaigns. “Television is an extremely competitive business, and it is generally averse to controversy,” he added.
Hours before Bee apologized, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders lambasted her in a statement and said that “executives at Time Warner and TBS must demonstrate that such explicit profanity about female members of this administration will not be condoned on its network.” (Sanders also called last September for ESPN to terminate then-show host Jemele Hill over a barbed remark she made on Twitter, an unusual plea from a government employee that raised eyebrows.)
“The president of the United States and top White House officials should never use their powerful platform to call on anyone but government officials to be fired,” said Griffin, who was called out by Trump in late March 2017 over an ill-advised photo shoot.
Bill Burton, a Democratic strategist who served as a White House press secretary under President Barack Obama, said the previous president’s team complained about some of the programming on Fox News but never advocated for a boycott or show termination.
“One would think that if this White House finally decided to show moral leadership, it wouldn’t be because of something that someone said on TBS,” Burton said.
While the network’s response to the Bee backlash is not thought to be connected, TBS parent company Time Warner is in a particularly tenuous position right now, as it awaits a June 12 court decision over the government’s lawsuit to block AT&T’s deal to acquire it.
The Trump presidency has been a tricky one for corporate media companies, which have benefitted from a “bump” in interest in news but are wary of appearing in the media-critic-in-chief’s crosshairs.
Last week, the president targeted ABC parent company Disney president Bob Iger with two separate tweets asking why the network apologized to former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, the target of Roseanne Barr’s slur, but not to him. The network has not engaged with the president’s complaint.