At this point, the chattering class has all-but-buried shock jock Don Imus. With advertisers deserting him and MSNBC announcing that it will no longer televise his daily show, it’s become a cottage industry to foretell the I-man’s demise. But we’ll take a different tack, and predict that the radioactive host will survive the current imbroglio and resume his radio career—after serving that two-week suspension imposed by his bosses at CBS.
What will save Imus? Money. And lots of it. As we noted a couple of days ago, the I-man’s radio program doesn’t reach the largest audience in talk radio (far from it), but its demographics are highly desirable. For years, Imus’ morning program in New York City has attracted more listeners with six-figure incomes than any other. That’s the kind of audience that advertisers covet, despite the furor generated by Imus’ remarks–and subsequent announcements that some high-profile companies will no longer advertise on his program.
While the loss of key advertisers is viewed as another nail in the Imus coffin, that event is hardly surprising. Abandoing a controversial host in a moment of crisis is nothing new; most corporations don’t want to offend potential customers by advertising with programs (and personalities) caught in a media firestorm. And most major hosts who’ve endured some element of scandal have suffered the loss of some advertisers, at least over the short term. But what the media doesn’t tell you is that many of the same firms often return to the host (quietly), when the controversy subsides.
While corporate sponsors have (rightly) condemned Imus’ remarks, they also understand the he delivers the kind of consumer they want for their product or service. If advertiser defections can be detained, Mr. Imus will almost certainly survive (and believe me, the sales department at CBS is working overtime on that issue). Additionally, it will be interesting to see how long companies like General Motors, American Express and Ditech can maintain their “boycott” of the show.
In today’s edition of The New York Times, media writer Bill Carter provides more details about the cash cow called Imus in the Morning. He reports that WFAN (the program’s New York affiliate) and CBS Radio earn about $20 million a year in advertising and syndication fees for the show. The program also generates another $20 million in advertising for stations around the country that carry Imus. That’s rather remarkable, given the small number of stations (70 or so) that broadcast his show.
The Imus program (like Rush Limbaugh) is also among the relatively small number of national talk shows that command syndication fees; that is, local stations actually pay to carry the program, in addition to the advertising time they give to the show’s distributor. By comparison, many national talk shows carry no syndication fee; stations get to air those shows by simply giving up part of their commercial time to the distributor. By generating syndication fees and advertising revenues, the Imus show is far more profitable–and valuable–than other programs with a similar-sized audience (1-2 million listeners per day).
That’s a big reason that CBS hasn’t followed NBC’s lead in cancelling Imus. According to Mr. Carter, CBS (and its radio syndication arm, Westwood One), plan to stick with the announced two-week suspension, while promising to “speak with all concerned parties and monitor the situation closely.” In corporate-speak, that means that CBS is hoping the suspension will allow the furor to subside a bit, giving them some time (and breathing room) to preserve a valuable franchise. CBS, Westwood One and WFAN would be exceptionally hard-pressed to find someone who could hold the Imus audience and its upscale demographics. The corporate suits understand this, and so does Don Imus.
As for MSNBC, the decision to get rid of him was much easier. The last-place cable news network paid CBS $4 million a year to simulcast his program, and spent another $500,000 on production costs. MSNBC will almost certainly replace Imus with a morning newscast, using available network talent and resources. Since those costs have already been absorbed, MSNBC won’t have to spend a lot in producing its new show, and it stands to save money in some areas (namely talent fees), compared to the costs for Imus. And, if the new morning program can hold on to a significant portion of Imus’ audience, the network won’t lose much in advertising revenue, either. For MSNBC, it’s a financial wash, without the negative publicity that would come from keeping Imus on the air.
For CBS, the financial considerations are much more significant. With radio ad sales and revenue relatively flat in recent years, the network can scarcely afford to fire one of its most valuable properties–no matter how reprehensible his comments might have been.
Paraphrasing Twain, reports of Imus’ demise ( for the moment) are greatly exaggerated.