Limbaugh Losing Individual Advertisers, but Little Else
Since he made a series of controversial comments about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, Rush Limbaugh's popular radio program has lost over 20 advertisers. But the advertisers' flight likely won't be a major blow to the standing of Limbaugh's program, given the nature of ad buying and the strong support Limbaugh listeners have shown for his show.
Though companies are pulling ads from Limbaugh, many of them are not withdrawing entirely from Premiere Radio Networks, which carries Limbaugh's program. The action is called re-expression. Companies will sometimes request that their sponsorship is reallocated to other programming. The companies who have pulled their ads from Limbaugh's show will have their work sent to other programming broadcast by Premiere.
Ad buy cycles are planned well in advance of airing and when their term is up, these companies will consider their options. In one well-known example, the hardware company Lowe's pulled its ads from the TLC show American Muslim. But Lowe's did not pull its ads from any other TLC show or any other Discovery-owned properties.
Plus, American Muslim's notoriety allowed it to fill quickly the void left by Lowe's and other fleeing advertisers.
Limbaugh dismissed the loss of advertisers on his show on Monday, telling listeners that those companies have "profited handsomely from you." Limbaugh continued, "They've decided they don't want you. So be it."
Limbaugh's sponsors have done well advertising on his show, and much like in the American Muslim incident, Limbaugh could find replacements who see a tempting target more than a magnet for controversy. Limbaugh's millions of loyal listeners would be a hard audience to turn down.
Many have compared Limbaugh to Don Imus. Imus was a long-term shock jock and was involved in a series of controversial episodes over his career, which culminated in his dismissal over comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team. This is about where the comparison ends. When the Imus scandal occurred, his ratings were well past their prime. He was simulcasting his radio show on MSNBC and much time had passed since his days of high ratings and fighting Howard Stern.
By contrast, Limbaugh's is the highest-rated radio show in the nation. Although there has been some decline in the past few years, he has virtually no competition. Limbaugh's exit would leave a vacuum which no one person could easily fill. Imus was easily replaced and he returned to air shortly after with a radio show simulcast on FBN.
Other examples of protested media figures don't quite fit either, because they didn't have Limbaugh's popularity or the editorial leeway he gets at Premiere. And even when they have gotten punished, they have recovered. Bill Maher's post 9/11 comments lost him his ABC show, but ABC could have easily claimed declining ratings caused them to cancel Politically Incorrect; Premier cannot make that argument with Limbaugh. Still, Maher was picked up by HBO a year later and the network has renewed his show ten times since then.
Glenn Beck's exit from Fox News Channel is similar to Maher's exit from ABC in that Beck has a loyal audience but his ratings were in severe decline. Beck was replaced with The Five without much blowback, and he has since gone on to start a nascent media company, which hasn't been around long enough to judge.
In the end, all this episode will likely do is harden the strong opinion Limbaugh's supporters and detractors already have of him, and of each other. The most dramatic result Limbaugh protestors can hope for is that Premiere attempts to censor Limbaugh; they have little incentive to force him out at this moment. Limbaugh will remain a hot potato issue. But that is how he has always preferred it.