Ad Buyers Discuss How Sexual Harassment Claims Will Affect the Morning Shows

Weighing in on the firings of some of media's biggest stars

Charlie Rose is just one of the names in the pantheon of disgraced media celebrities.
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Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, Bill O’Reilly.

New names are being added to the pantheon of disgraced media celebrities at an unheard-of rate.

Tuesday night, 24 hours after NBC heard a damning complaint of sexual misconduct by Matt Lauer, the star NBC News anchor was out of his Today show perch, and the $25 million annual salary that came with it. A week earlier, Charlie Rose lost his seat at the CBS This Morning table, and of his eponymous PBS show, after eight women came forward to document cases of sexual harassment over the years.

These high-profile dismissals are not isolated to TV news organizations. NPR’s news chief David Sweeney resigned last month after at least three women said he acted inappropriately with them; Vox editorial director Lockhart Steele was dismissed in October for violating workplace conduct codes; AKQA’s international creative lead Duan Evans resigned last week in the midst of an internal disciplinary investigation.

“We’re going through this sort of cathartic moment, not just in media, because we see it throughout all of society and all of business and elsewhere,” said 21st Century Fox executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch at an industry event hours after Lauer’s firing. “I think we come out of this as a community, far, far stronger.”

So how do these media companies, which have banked so much on star talent with the hopes of continuing to reap advertising riches—some $500 million in annual revenue in the case of the Today show—move forward?

“From an advertiser perspective these things are, for the most part, surprises. So there’s not a lot an advertiser could do to prepare for that,” said David Campanelli, evp and director of video investment at Horizon Media. “Most advertisers will look at this as an incident that was taken care of and are going to move on. That’s assuming there are no more surprises.”

America’s First Family, as the Today show once marketed itself, has broken up. But breezy morning shows are also far different from opinion shows that are a staple of cable news prime time. Cable’s biggest draw, Bill O’Reilly, lost his show earlier this year following a review of allegations of sexual harassment against him.

“While [morning shows and prime-time news] are an analogous situation, there are all kinds of political complications when you start talking about hard news opinion,” said Campanelli. “But certainly acting quickly, making no question about what the action was, goes a long way to subduing things.”

Morning TV is still important for advertisers, as it skews younger than other TV news dayparts. It remains a compelling platform for several advertising categories. Ad buyers contacted by Adweek agree that CBS and NBC mitigated any potential advertiser erosion by acting as quickly as they did.

“Matt worked there for a really long time, but I think that the time slot can weather the situation,” said Barry Lowenthal, president of full-service media agency The Media Kitchen. “Is this going to hurt NBC? Absolutely. Is it going to accelerate the migration of viewers? That’s already happening.”

In fact, the three network morning shows have been losing audience share and viewership by the hundreds of thousands in recent years.

For the 2016-2017 TV season, the combined average for NBC’s Today show, ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS This Morning was 12.18 million viewers, down 6 percent from the 12.90 million during the 2015-2016 season, which was already down from 13.25 million viewers in 2014-2015.

And that, more than the sexual harassment dismissal of a high-profile figure, could lead to advertisers going elsewhere.

“This is a seismic shift. You’re absolutely seeing a migration to digital,” said Lowenthal of brands he works with. “As millennials get older and Gen Z gets older, that pace is going to continue.”

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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