A sign at Fox News Channel headquarters in New York promotes Bill O’Reilly’s show. (Justin Lane / European Pressphoto Agency)
may cleanse itself of its problem with persistent sexual harassment claims if it parts ways with host Bill O’Reilly. But the network would also face the challenge of competing in the cable news landscape without its biggest star.
It’s no exaggeration to say Fox News Channel’s loss of “The O’Reilly Factor” would be the equivalent of NBC losing its top-rated comedy “Friends” in 2004, which spelled the end of the network’s “Must-See TV” lineup that provided dominant ratings for years on Thursday night.
By delivering the biggest audience of any cable news network each night, “The O’Reilly Factor” has been a tent pole that supports the other programs in the Fox News prime-time lineup.
That tent pole could be pulled away as the Murdoch family, which controls Fox News parent 21st Century Fox, has decided it has had enough of the negative publicity surrounding the sexual harassment claims against O’Reilly and could sever his ties from the company as soon as today, according to people familiar with the plans.
His exit would be a far greater blow than the departure of rising star Megyn Kelly. When Kelly left her 9 p.m. Eastern Time show on Fox News in January to join NBC, the network didn’t experience any ratings decline in the time period; her replacement Tucker Carlson was able to retain much of the powerful lead-in from O’Reilly.
The consensus in the TV news industry is that losing O’Reilly’s program — which averaged 3.98 million viewers in the first quarter of 2017 — could drive down ratings for the entire Fox News prime time lineup by 25%.
The most likely scenario for replacing O’Reilly has one of the other prime-time hosts, Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity, moving into the 8 p.m. Eastern slot.
Fox News, the top-rated cable news network, was already losing on the advertising front with O’Reilly in place. Sponsors rapidly abandoned “The O’Reilly Factor” after a New York Times report that O’Reilly and Fox News paid $13 million to settle claims of sexual harassment and abusive behavior. His shortened commercial breaks have been filled with bottom-feeding direct marketers who buy time at a discount.
Fox News could have sustained the defections for a while as advertisers moved their spots into other programs and no marketing budgets were moved off the network. But the attention surrounding the accusations against O’Reilly — prompting protests outside Fox News headquarters in Midtown Manhattan — would have made it difficult for any advertiser to return to the program in without risking a backlash.
The risk for Fox News would also intensify during the upfront advertising market later this spring, when companies decide where to make their advance commitments for commercial time that runs during the 2017-2018 season. Rather than deal with the ongoing issues with O’Reilly, it’s likely companies would have taken their money elsewhere.
The crisis has also threatened other aspects of the business at 21st Century Fox. The company’s issues with Fox News led to speculation that it could threaten British approval of the company’s proposed $22.9-billion purchase of British pay-TV provider Sky. The Murdochs lost out on that deal five years ago after the company was embroiled in a phone-hacking scandal and may not have wanted to leave anything to chance this time around.
Cutting ties with O’Reilly may also be indicative of James and Lachlan Murdoch flexing their executive muscle even when it doesn’t always go along with their father’s wishes. Rupert Murdoch stood by O’Reilly in face of the harassment claims and the protests.
But the Murdoch sons — who have no intent to change the conservative slant of Fox News — clearly wanted to send a message about the network’s workplace culture after former chief executive Roger Ailes was pushed out over the harassment lawsuit filed against him by former anchor Gretchen Carlson.
Although O’Reilly appears to be leaving the cable news network that he helped lead to No. 1 in the ratings, his impact on how viewers get their TV news will last long after he’s gone.
O’Reilly changed the cable news game by putting his point of view and personality ahead of reporting. His bluster, confidence and authority made him a signature talent for Fox News when it toppled CNN as the cable news leader in 2002 and kept it on top in the ratings ever since.
“CNN always said ‘the news is the star,’” recalled former NBC News President Neal Shapiro. “Bill O’Reilly proved ‘no, no the anchor is the star.’ Nobody watched Bill O’Reilly’s show to find out what was happening. They watched to find out what Bill thought was important and why it was happening.”
Before O’Reilly — who had a journeyman career in local, network and syndicated TV before joining Fox — opinion shows on cable news tried to at least give the appearance of presenting opposing points of view. For years, CNN sought balance with its left and right leaning panelists on “Crossfire.” When conservative radio host Sean Hannity first moved to TV on Fox News, he was given a liberal sidekick, Alan Colmes.
But O’Reilly’s program showed that a single compelling host with a consistent approach could draw a loyal, dedicated and large audience. His viewers could count on him each night to attack the so-called mainstream media’s bias, proponents of political correctness and the actions of Hollywood liberals.
While O’Reilly insisted he was independent politically — he described his program as the “No-Spin Zone” — he was more critical of progressive-leaning ideas and often decried the loss of what he called the traditional American values that he believed in while growing up in a modest household in the Long Island suburbs during the 1950s and ’60s. His current best-selling book is called “Old School: Life In the Sane Lane,” a paean to the rules of that era.
During its 20 years on the air, O’Reilly’s program often became as much about the host as it was the news. Big interviews with major political figures — he had sit-downs with George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — were often followed by discussions critiquing his performance as well as the subjects. Even his appearances on other networks — such as CBS’ “Late Night with David Letterman” — would get deconstructed on his program the following night.