Bill O’Reilly has been sacked following an investigation into harassment allegations, bringing a stunning end to US cable television news’ most popular programme and one that came to define the bravado of his network over 20 years.
O’Reilly lost his job on the same day he was photographed in Rome shaking the hand of Pope Francis.
The downfall of Fox’s most popular – and most lucrative – personality began with an April 2 report in The New York Times that five women had been paid a total of US$13 million (NZ$19m) to keep quiet about unpleasant encounters with O’Reilly, who has denied any wrongdoing. Dozens of his show’s advertisers fled within days, even though O’Reilly’s viewership increased.
O’Reilly’s exit came nine months after his former boss, Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes, was ousted following allegations of sexual harassment.
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Following the Times story, 21st Century Fox said it had asked the same law firm that investigated Ailes to look into O’Reilly’s behaviour. 21st Century Fox leaders Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James said in a memo to Fox staff that their decision to ax O’Reilly came following an “extensive review” into the charges.
Fox said Tucker Carlson would move into O’Reilly’s time slot – the second time in three months he’s replaced an exiting prime-time personality.
Carlson, a veteran pundit who has hosted shows on CNN, MSNBC and PBS, had taken over for Megyn Kelly in January when she announced she was moving to NBC News. The Five, a talk show with five rotating hosts that regularly airs at 5 pm, will move into the 9 pm time slot. Eric Bolling will host a new show that airs at 5 pm starting next month, the company said.
O’Reilly had ruled the “no spin zone” on television with a quick smile and an even quicker temper. He pushed a populist, conservative-leaning point of view born from growing up on Long Island, and was quick to shout down those who disagreed with him. Fans loved his willingness to talk back to power or point out hypocrisy among liberal politicians or media members.
His show generated US$178m (NZ$254m) in advertising revenue in 2015, according to Kantar Media. His audience was larger in the first three months of this year than it has ever been, according to Nielsen.
O’Reilly’s pugnacious personality wasn’t just an off-screen affectation, with one of the settlements going to a woman who complained about being shouted at in the newsroom.
Even though at least one of the harassment cases against him dated back more than a decade and was widely reported then, the accumulation of cases outlined in the Times damaged him much more extensively.
For Fox executives, it wasn’t clear when it would end: a campaign to target advertisers was continuing, a group of women demonstrated in front of Fox’s headquarters Tuesday and another woman, a former clerical worker at Fox, called a harassment hotline and accusing the host of boorish behaviour.
“I’m not going away,” said Lisa Bloom, attorney for the latest accuser and another woman who alleges her career stalled because she spurned O’Reilly’s advances.
O’Reilly’s attorney, Marc Kasowitz, charged that his client was being subjected to a “brutal campaign of character assassination” and that there is a smear campaign orchestrated by far-left organisations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons.
‘YOU ARE ABOUT TO LOSE BILL O’REILLY
Conservative personality Glenn Beck – who once lost a job at Fox News Channel because a similar campaign choked his Programme of paying advertisers – came to O’Reilly’s defense of Wednesday, but it was too late. O’Reilly’s fans aren’t likely to be happy about his losing his job, particularly on a controversy set in motion by the Times, a publication hated in conservative circles.
“You need to write and call Fox News Channel today and tell them, you can lose your advertisers or you can lose your viewers,” Beck said on his radio show hours before the firing. “But you have to put some spine back into the Murdoch family and the Fox News Channel board because you are about to lose Bill O’Reilly.”
20 YEAR CAREER…OVER?
O’Reilly had been scheduled to return from his vacation next Monday, and there had been some talk of him addressing his longtime viewers about the exit. But Fox said Wednesday that wouldn’t happen.
O’Reilly is also one of the country’s most popular nonfiction authors. The books in his Killing historical series, including Killing Lincoln and Killing Reagan, have consistently sold 1 million or more copies in hardcover, a rare achievement in publishing, and his platform on Fox enabled him to promote his work.
He has also had best-sellers with everything from the memoir A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity to his most recent work, Old School, which includes passages urging the respectful treatment of women.
O’Reilly and co-author Martin Dugard are due to release another book in the Killing series in September, and a spokeswoman for publisher Henry Holt and Co. said that plans had not changed.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed O’Reilly was in the VIP section for the pope’s Wednesday appearance. Burke, a former Fox News correspondent in Rome, denied having facilitated the tickets. Such tickets can be obtained via special request to the papal household from embassies, high-ranking churchmen or Vatican officials.
Francis always swings by the VIP seats at the end of his audience for a quick round of handshakes. A photographer from the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano snapped a photo of Francis reaching out to shake his hand.
HOW MUCH CAN FOX NEWS TAKE?
When the Republican Party convened in Cleveland in July to nominate Donald Trump for president, Fox News was led by Chairman Roger Ailes and the prime-time lineup of Greta Van Susteren, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity.
Nine months later, only Hannity remains. According to a New York magazine report Wednesday, O’Reilly is being forced out. Matt Drudge put the reported shake-up in perspective, with characteristic subtlety:
“FOXNEWS ROCKED: O’REILLY OUT AFTER DECADES ON TOP”
A once-unthinkable move had begun to seem inevitable.
Earlier on Tuesday, attorney Lisa Bloom said she had taken the case of a sixth woman who claims O’Reilly sexually harassed her.
Amid turmoil, Fox News has remained a ratings juggernaut. In the first quarter of this year, the network averaged 2.7 million viewers between 7 pm and 11 pm ET, double the viewership of second-place MSNBC. The newcomers have fared particularly well. Martha MacCallum, in Van Susteren’s old time slot, delivered Fox News’s most-watched quarter ever at 7 pm. Tucker Carlson, who replaced Kelly, did the same in the 9 pm hour.
But how many more changes can Fox News withstand?
Van Susteren and Kelly were popular, but O’Reilly is in another class. He has been the face of the network since its launch in 1996 and the most-watched cable news host 15 years in a row.
Even the cloud of sexual harassment has not darkened O’Reilly’s ratings.
O’Reilly’s fill-ins – Dana Perino, Eric Bolling and Greg Gutfeld – have drawn smaller audiences. Then again, ratings were not really the problem. Dozens of advertisers pulled out of The O’Reilly Factor. It doesn’t matter how many people tune in, if companies refuse to book commercials.
Besides principles of right and wrong, which are not always paramount in business, there was Fox News’ brand image to consider. Sexual harassment allegations forced out Ailes, and with similar accusations dogging O’Reilly, the network appeared hostile to women.
A company’s reputation is a difficult thing to quantify, but consider this, from the Department of Anecdotal Evidence: As of Monday, the Fox affiliate in Boston, the nation’s ninth-largest media market, will change the name of its local newscast from Fox 25 News to Boston 25 News, because it considers the Fox brand a liability.
So far, Fox News has marched on – seemingly as strong as ever – without Ailes, Van Susteren and Kelly. As the network prepares for a future without O’Reilly, the question is whether its most popular host is similarly expendable or uncommonly difficult to replace.
– AP and The Washington Post