When your job is to sell advertising for the most polarizing network on cable television, you might expect to spend a lot of time dodging flying objects and engaging in fierce debates over who should be the next president. But Paul Rittenberg, the affable head of ad sales for Fox News Channel, said he really doesn’t talk about politics that much.
Another thing he doesn’t do much of these days is try to position Fox News as a competitor to CNN, MSNBC or other cable news networks. In fact, he’s been positioning the network against ratings powerhouses such as USA and even ESPN. If you’ve been following ratings wars over the past decade or so, it’s not hard to see why. In both total day and prime-time viewers, Fox News has outpaced its counterparts for 160 consecutive months. Last year it was the No. 4 prime-time network on all of cable, right behind TNT and USA and not too far behind ESPN, according to data from Nielsen Media. By comparison, CNN was No. 31.
“That battle, as far as we’re concerned, is already won,” Rittenberg said.
We recently caught up with Fox’s top salesman during “upfront” season, when networks try to generate advertiser interest in their coming seasons.
International Business Times: Fox News tends to get lumped together with CNN and MSNBC, but then when you look at the audiences, you’re on a different plateau. How does that change what you do?
Paul Rittenberg: To put a bit of a historical trend line on it, my sales pitch when we launched was, “Please, please, please, somebody will probably watch, and it’s good for you if there’s competition.” That pitch has obviously changed over the years. In terms of media value for advertisers, we’re a top three, top five -- the top network on prime time at times. We’re not comparing ourselves to competitive news networks anymore. We’ll talk about ourselves in relation to ESPN and USA. We also compare ourselves to the broadcast networks when it’s appropriate.
IBTimes: Fox News is doing some scripted, non-news-related programming now, as is CNN. [“Legend & Lies: Into the West,” a 10-episode documentary series began airing on Sundays earlier this month.] Is that a conscious effort to move in a direction that might broaden the audience?
Rittenberg: What it does for me is not so much broaden the audience, but it gives us the opportunity to talk to other advertisers who wouldn’t normally think of quote-unquote news. News tends to be a Monday-through-Friday business, generally speaking. So I think, we’re probably dipping our toe in [non-news programming]. I don’t think it’s a massive change, but it’s an opportunity to try something different like “Legends & Lies.” And look, every book Bill O’Reilly writes is a No. 1 best-seller. There’s obviously an audience. How that translates to us, I think we’re still trying to figure it out.
IBTimes: What would be an example of an advertiser that you might not approach for news but might work better for something scripted?
Rittenberg: Without going into names, some retailers may skew more female. They may also shy away from news. The thing about news is you don’t know what’s going to happen. Some advertisers are hesitant to run where there might be something awful coming up next, which these days is more frequently.
IBTimes: That’s also the stuff that gets the best ratings in news.
Rittenberg: Well, exactly. So this is an opportunity to go to someone who might be hesitant to be in a breaking news context and say, “Look, we can deliver for you 90 percent of the same audience with the same qualities in an environment where you know what the program is going to be.”
IBTimes: You’ve seen many election cycles come and go, and now we have another one coming up. First of all, how do you keep the momentum going for 18 months? And is it getting longer every time, or is that just my imagination?
Rittenberg: It feels like that to me. I guess the way you keep it going is what’s happening now -- I’ve lost track of the number of people who are running on the Republican side. Each announcement creates some news. Honestly, it used to be a 12-month cycle. I don’t know that it’s grown to 18 months, but it feels like it might be doing that. From an advertiser’s perspective, we pitch it as a year.
IBTimes: When you’re talking about social media strategy -- that probably didn’t exist so much in ’08. It definitely was a big thing in 2012, and I think everyone knows now that, with these election cycles, all of our digital traffic is going to start to rise, because people are so involved in sharing articles about the election. Is that something you’re planning for earlier given how things went in 2012?
Rittenberg: I think we are. Most of my job involves monetizing what I can. It’s interesting when we do particularly well with Facebook or Twitter, but it doesn’t help me make my number. What it does do is give us data points to bring to advertisers and say, “Look, this is how engaged people are in the election.”
IBTimes: That must be part of your pitch: the legendary loyalty of Fox’s audience.
Rittenberg: It is. I spend my entire life avoiding talking about politics. I’m selling the quality of the audience, so we know they spend more time watching. On a basic media level, that means they’re going to see more commercials. And we know that they watch live. It’s not as high as sports, but it’s close.
IBTimes: You mention politics. So what happens when an advertiser does bring up the politics and says, “Look, I don’t really like where you guys align politically”? Do you try to deflect that, or do you consider it a lost cause?
Rittenberg: There really aren’t that many lost causes. I think before we were as successful as we are in terms of ratings, we heard more of that. Frankly, nowadays, it sort of doesn’t come up. I think there’s an understanding that some networks align one way or another.
IBTimes: When the election comes and goes, do you change your strategy based on who won?
Rittenberg: Not from a sales point of view. Sure, when the election’s over, there will be a story. I don’t know what it will be yet. Just to finish my thought from before, if someone doesn’t feel comfortable buying Sean Hannity, that’s fine. I’ll say, then buy Bret Baier. Part of the pitch I make to people who say they don’t understand why we’re so successful is, “Forget politics and everything you think you know. Put it on for five minutes with the sound off. And then put on CNN, or whoever, with the sound off, and you tell me which is more fun to watch.” I mean, it’s television. It’s not just information. If people just wanted information, they wouldn’t be watching TV anyway. [Laughs.]
IBTimes: We’re seeing a lot of trends now where viewership on traditional linear cable is decreasing. Last year was really tough for a lot of networks. Now we’re seeing a lot of these over-the-top services and different things. When you look at the future, are you worried?
Rittenberg: I’m honestly not because our mobile growth has been pretty dramatic. If cord-cutting is real -- and I suspect that it is based on my three 20-something daughters -- I think Fox News is clearly a property that people are going to be willing to pay for. Now will that change the ad model? Yeah, probably. The mix of revenue will change. But when you have a property that’s this popular, we’ll figure out a way to monetize it.