On Tuesday, Dominion Voting Systems settled its lawsuit against Fox News for $787.5 million. What comes next can be summed up in four words: beware and be aware.
“Beware” because Fox News is about to burn brighter and hotter. If you thought the network was bad before it settled Dominion’s defamation suit, let me assure you: You ain’t seen nothing yet. “Be aware” because we are in the midst of a very brief moment to actually hold Fox News accountable.
Regardless of what you think of the settlement, it is a significant sum of money; it is a significant portion of Fox News’ annual profits. But this alone isn’t enough of a financial hit to reorient the network’s estranged relationship with the truth.
Would a trial at which Fox figures were forced to publicly account for their deliberate lies have further undermined Fox’s position and weakened its destructive influence? Absolutely. But neither a trial nor a financial award from Dominion’s lawsuit would change Fox all by themselves, no matter how painful.
The impact of Dominion’s lawsuit was always going to be limited because of Fox’s ultimate weapon: cable carriage fees.
The dirty secret about Fox News is that it is one of the only commercial TV channels that doesn’t need a single advertisement to be profitable, if not the only one. In fact, Fox could have zero dollars in ad revenue and still have at least a 35% profit margin. This is the result of carriage fees and the guaranteed revenue they provide Fox.
Various networks are paid carriage fees for every cable subscriber; the fees are negotiated between cable providers and the companies. Some channels receive no fees. Others, like ESPN, receive multiple dollars per subscriber. These fees are passed on to consumers, meaning every time a provider agrees to pay a network higher fees, its customers’ bills go up.
During what would have been the Dominion trial, Fox News is actively renewing, or gearing up to renew, its contracts with at least three major cable providers — a potentially even bigger financial stake than the case. These three renewals alone, even without increases, would be worth nearly $1 billion annually to Fox.
But Fox won’t be seeking to simply renew; it will be looking for an increase. Fox Corp. has a history of using aggressive tactics to increase rates across its networks. It also relies on whipping the Fox News audience into a frenzy, warning viewers that their cable companies are trying to take Fox away from them and issuing calls to action. Of course, Fox News doesn’t tell viewers that these moves effectively increase their cable bills.
With the Dominion lawsuit settled, Fox will now put all of its energy into these carriage renewals. If Fox receives increased fees, they could amount to hundreds of millions more in revenue just from these three carriage deals alone. For Fox, success here necessitates that its audience be as fervent as ever. Accordingly, you can expect the network to raise the temperature of its simmering cauldron of deceit and extremism to a full-on boil. It has no other choice. It just paid $787.5 million to avoid public scrutiny and to avoid alienating its audience by being forced to tell the truth.
So, no, the Dominion lawsuit alone was never going to neutralize Fox’s destructive influence all by itself. It is only the first in a cascade of consequences that would be required to hold Fox News accountable.
But the revelations have exposed Fox more than ever as a partisan propaganda operation. If Fox News is successful at not just maintaining but also increasing its carriage fees, then all of this will truly have amounted to nothing — and Fox will get worse and stay that way. The only way Dominion’s lawsuit changes Fox is if it is part of a series of cascading consequences — shareholder lawsuits, other defamation lawsuits, the rest of the news media’s treating Fox like the political operation it has been exposed to be and, most important, cable companies’ recalibrating the inflated fees they pay Fox. So beware of the version of Fox News that’s to come, but also be aware of the ways this moment can be used to hold it accountable.