Research: Advertisers followed consistent spending habits throughout pandemic

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA


Do you know who funds the news you watch?

As is widely known, some news programmes focus on facts, while others focus on opinions. And when covering the pandemic, some networks focused on partisans while others focused on health officials and organisations. Behind all these programmes are advertisers who drive revenue, meaning they have the power to hold news outlets accountable for their coverage.

The Center for Media Engagement’s previous research revealed that certain news outlets, primarily Fox News and MSNBC, politicised coverage of COVID-19 and appeared to put profit and partisanship above public health. In the next phase of our study, we investigated the funders behind these news networks. We wanted to know which brands were supporting news programmes on which networks. We also wanted to know if advertiser spending habits changed during the pandemic, as some networks faced criticism for their coverage.

The findings

In short, no, advertisers did not change their habits in response to pandemic news coverage. We found that ad spending followed similar patterns throughout the pandemic on network news and on primetime cable news programming. This was true even for healthcare advertisers, who are more likely to be invested in public health outcomes.

Between January 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, advertisers spent more than US$2 billion dollars on primetime cable news (CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News) and on nightly network news programming (ABC, CBS, and NBC). On nightly network news programming, ad spending remained fairly constant. On primetime cable news programmes, spending increased around the 2020 presidential election and then fell afterward. There is no evidence of any mass exodus or changes in advertising spending for any particular network during this time period.

The top five advertisers on each network spent a total of US$287.3 million on primetime cable and nightly network news programmes. Fox News received the most advertising dollars from its top five advertisers (US$87.4 million), with MyPillow as the network’s largest advertiser (US$44.2 million). CBS received the least advertising dollars from its top five advertisers (US$27.9 million), which was distributed fairly evenly across the five brands.

What does this mean for news consumers?

While advertisers hold significant power with their ad dollars, news consumers can also take steps to make their voices heard. Viewers who find politicised news coverage troubling can change their purchasing behaviour or contact advertisers to advocate for change. To make this easier for consumers, the Center for Media Engagement put together a contact list of the top advertisers at Fox News and MSNBC (the two networks that seemed to politicise coronavirus coverage the most).

We also want to remind viewers that it’s important to consider where they get their news. Choosing a programme that provides opinions, rather than facts, can affect the information people are given and therefore affect how they act in a crisis. It’s important to understand how news programmes lean and to closely consider the source. Remember: You hold the remote. Take control.

About Katalina Deaven

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