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For Fox News Channel, the 2016 presidential race has meant that all the industry talk about cord-cutting and the move away from appointment viewing is proving wrong for now.
“Our ad sales were up a little over 20 percent for [fiscal year 2015], and this quarter is pacing better than that, versus a year ago,” says Paul Rittenberg, executive vice president of Advertising Sales for FNC. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that this calendar year will be, by far, our biggest sales year ever, certainly through the election.”
Expectations are high as well when it comes to the ratings for the upcoming presidential debates. FNC’s coverage will be anchored by Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET on Sept. 26, Oct. 9, and Oct. 19. Those nights are about 85 percent sold, Rittenberg says, with the greatest advertiser demand for the evenings of the first debate and the third.
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That provides a nice alignment for Fox News, with its own Chris Wallace moderating the final debate in Las Vegas. “I thought it was great!” Rittenberg says of Wallace’s selection by the Commission on Presidential Debates. “I think it’s been a while coming. Lots of people have lots of opinions about Fox News, but I think Chris Wallace is pretty irreproachable as someone who does a good job.”
For FNC, it will be a highlight of a year that has had its share of ups and downs. Donald Trump‘s months-long public criticism of star host Megyn Kelly was followed by Gretchen Carlson‘s blockbuster sexual harassment suit against CEO Roger Ailes, which led to his resignation in July. That was followed by the resignation of longtime prime time host Greta Van Susteren.
But ad sales have not been impacted, Rittenberg says. “I was prepared with some answers for advertisers and it really hasn’t come up. And it hasn’t affected ratings, which, at the end of the day, that’s the business we’re in – that’s what we sell.”
And with Campaign 2016 drawing viewers as it has, there’s been plenty to sell. The challenge for any network, of course, is to maintain that momentum after election day. Rittenberg is bullish about FNC’s future.
“In 2013, our ratings went down for a few months, then they came back up. My memory is that in 2009 they actually stayed up throughout the year,” Rittenberg says. “We’ve always done a better job of plateauing and holding at a higher level than the other news channels once a big event is over.”