Fox News host Bill O’Reilly announced Tuesday night that he was going on a two-week family vacation, adding that he’d scheduled the trip “last fall.” What O’Reilly is actually doing is going off the air in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal and advertiser boycott of his prime-time show, The O’Reilly Factor. O’Reilly worked hard last night to dispel the notion of a “suspension.”
O’Reilly became the focus of public outrage and advertiser defections following a New York Times exposé of numerous sexual-harassment allegations against him and $13 million in settlement payments. As least 18 sponsors have already pulled from his program.
On April 1, the same day The Times reported the sexual harassment story, news also broke that Fox had quietly gone ahead and extended O’Reilly’s multi-million-dollar contract, which was set to expire in 2017.
Apparently Fox News was in quite a hurry to re-sign O’Reilly after losing star anchor Megyn Kelly to NBC News in January. The new contract, however, gives the network the option to end the relationship if any new allegations are made against O’Reilly for inappropriate behavior, according to Variety.
Rupert Murdoch’s “instinct will be to protect O’Reilly as long as possible, insiders told New York Magazine‘s Gabriel Sherman, because O’Reilly’s show generates more than $100 million in revenue per year. They also pointed out that companies will often temporarily shift ads to different parts of the Fox schedule to wait out the storm of bad publicity—essentially making their boycotts merely “cosmetic.”
Remember, however, that Murdoch himself stepped in as interim Fox News chairman after Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was ousted after Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson sued him for sexual harassment. Murdoch’s sons, James and Lachlan, who serve as 21st Century Fox CEO and executive chairman respectively, were reportedly more than happy to see Ailes go, and they may feel similarly inclined to give O’Reilly the boot.
“As one of the network’s original stars, O’Reilly is a public face of a toxic culture that Ailes built over 20 years,” notes Sherman.
Despite Rupert’s current support, the stock price of Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox has dipped in response and some inside the company fear that the scandal will ultimately derail Murdoch’s multi-billion-dollar bid to acquire the European pay-TV service Sky. As Sherman points out, that’s exactly what happened before, in the wake of the London phone-hacking scandal. Rupert may, in the end, have to let O’Reilly go.
Meanwhile, Fox has called upon the law firm Paul Weiss to conduct an internal investigation into O’Reilly’s treatment of a former guest on his show, Wendy Walsh, who has recently alleged that O’Reilly sexually harassed her. Paul Weiss is the same law firm Fox used last year to investigate sexual harassment claims against Ailes following Carlson’s lawsuit.
Do not, however, underestimate the loyalty of O’Reilly’s fans. He has weathered other scandals before and come out on top.
In fact, O’Reilly’s ratings were up last week — averaging more than 3.7 million total viewers, 652,000 in the key 25–54 demographic—all while news of $13 million in settlements was making headlines. He’s everyone’s favorite bigoted Irish scold.
And just to put Fox News’ dominance in perspective, during the week of April 3 to 7, they had five programs in the top ten basic cable rankings for total viewers: The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity, Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Five and Special Report with Bret Baier. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, the only other cable news program, came in ninth.
That’s a pretty powerful public relations machine. Then again, Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby never thought they’d have to pay for their abuse of women either.
– Danielle Bizzarro