For the last couple years, CNN has been looking increasingly out of step with the cable news audience, offering up middle-of-the-road, milquetoast news in prime time as its competitors stocked their schedules with ever more strident political commentary. The result: a fall to fourth place behind surging Fox News, MSNBC and even even sister channel HLN.

But ratings are only useful insofar as they help to bring in advertising dollars. And now it looks like, just possibly, the tactics Fox and MSNBC have been using to drive viewership ever higher could be scaring advertisers away -- leaving CNN looking not so dumb after all.If you've been watching this space, you know that a number of advertisers have asked Fox News not to run their commercials during Glenn Beck's show in response to comments Beck made about President Obama. (Beck called Obama a racist, sparking a protest by a group called Color of Change.)

Now Ad Age reports that the furor is causing some advertisers to consider whether they want to be associated with controversial opinion programming at all, whether left- or right-wing. Clorox says it's not going to run ads during political talk programming anymore. "[W]e do not want to be associated with inflammatory speech used by either liberal or conservative talk-show hosts," the company said.

Clorox isn't a particularly big spender on 24-hour cable news networks. But given the 'small-c' conservatism of companies like Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble (two of the five biggest cable news advertisers, according to TNS Media Intelligence), it wouldn't be especially surprising if were they to conclude that they have more to lose than to gain by supporting Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann -- which is to say antagonizing the followers of Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly.

And that would make CNN and its carefully nonbiased, offensively inoffensive prime time lineup look like a pretty attractive place to advertise.

Belated disclosure: CNN and AOL are both part of Time Warner, although that will only be the case for a few more months.

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