“Killing O’Reilly” could be the name of the next book Fox News commentator and host Bill O’Reilly writes. O’Reilly announced on his broadcast Tuesday evening that he is immediately leaving on vacation, “I like to take time off around Easter, it’s calming.” However, O’Reilly’s announcement was anything but calming when it comes to the growing sexual harassment scandal involving him, as speculation increases that he will be leaving the network. Fox News has said he will return April 24.
The New York Times published an article April 1 disclosing that O’Reilly and his network had paid $13 million to five women as settlements for sexual harassment complaints. Since then dozens of advertisers have pulled their ads from “The O’Reilly Factor,” which has been the network’s highest rated program, regularly pulling in more than 3 million viewers. Kantar Media reported that the program is now airing about seven national ads, which is significantly down from the usual 33 national ads.
Last week Los Angeles radio personality Wendy Walsh, accompanied by attorney Lisa Bloom, said that O’Reilly had sexually harassed her. The company says it is investigating this claim. Meanwhile, Bloom told MSNBC Tuesday night that it is likely more women will come forward with additional allegations against O’Reilly. O’Reilly has said that he is a target because he is famous, so he settled to “spare his children the pain of messy ordeals.” No other Fox News host has been similarly accused. Perhaps the only other “famous” person to face such allegations is former Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, who resigned last year amid scandal, but received a $40 million exit package from the company.
While few noteworthy people have come to the defense of the temperamental O’Reilly, he did receive support from the president. Speaking in the Oval Office last week, Trump described O’Reilly as a good person adding, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.” He told the New York Times, “Personally, I think he shouldn’t have settled.” Of course, the president has also been the target of sexual harassment charges, especially following the disclosure of audio from a video recording of him bragging about sexual assault. Trump later apologized for his remarks.
Fox News makes well over a billion dollars a year in gross profits. The top-rated “O’Reilly Factor” earns tens of millions of dollars in profit annually, and serves as a tent pole for those broadcasts adjacent to it. O’Reilly’s viewers are extremely loyal and his ratings have increased since the latest scandal broke. But are the viewers loyal to the talent or to the Fox News brand? Fox News executives will be monitoring the ratings during O’Reilly’s vacation to see if his absence impacts the numbers. They also know that ratings increased when controversial Fox News host Megyn Kelly left for NBC News and was replaced by Tucker Carlson in the 9 p.m. ET hour.
The sexual harassment charges are roiling the waters in Great Britain where 21st Century Fox is trying to take full control of Sky News. The British regulator, Ofcom, is expected to announce by mid May whether it will let the deal go forward. Ofcom could kill the deal if Rupert Murdoch and the company does not meet the standard of “fit and proper” owners, which can include any relevant misconduct. Murdoch is still damaged by a hacking scandal in England which led a parliamentary committee to find in 2012 that he is “not a fit person to exercise stewardship of a major international company.”
Murdoch is also seeking to ease regulatory restrictions in Washington, where politicians are especially susceptible to public opinion. Already New York City Public Advocate Letitia, who has led protests at Fox News headquarters, has sent letters the the city’s Commission of Human Rights and the Securities and Exchange Commission requesting they investigate sexual harassment at the network. Meanwhile, Fox News is being investigated by federal prosecutors to determine whether it broke any securities laws with its harassment settlements.
For the most part, Fox News has supported President Donald Trump. Rupert Murdoch sees opportunity for his business interests in a Trump presidency, and both men like nothing more than winning. But, like Trump, some of Murdoch’s children have a more moderate approach. New York Magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman reports that a senior Fox News staffer said, “It’s up to the family.” Sherman reports two Fox News sources say 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch wants O’Reilly out, while his brother, Lachlan, and father Rupert “are more inclined to keep him.”
Donald Trump once famously said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” But the invincible Bill O’Reilly has lost advertisers and his program will take a huge financial hit. At this point, advertisers clearly have a greater sense of social responsibility than does Fox News. What do the O’Reilly settlements and the Ailes termination say about the corporate culture at Fox News?
Fox News must rid itself of the stigma associated with this well established pattern and all of its bad actors. As the leading cable news channel, which serves millions of viewers every day, Fox News must act responsibly by making a powerful statement that sexual harassment is unacceptable.
Killing “The O’Reilly Factor” and terminating Bill O’Reilly would be an important first step for 21st Century Fox.