Bill O’Reilly is the star of the Fox News network’s top-rated show, The O’Reilly Factor, a show that just recently set a new industry record for the size of its audience. Despite this success, however, there are growing signs that the network may be looking to cut O’Reilly loose.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the company is “preparing to cut ties” with the Fox News star, after a wave of negative publicity that was triggered by news of more than a dozen sexual harassment allegations made against him by multiple former staffers. That news in turn led to an advertiser boycott of the show that may have helped force the network’s hand.
A number of media watchers noted that the matter-of-fact headline about cutting ties with O’Reilly appeared in the Journal, which like Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch. A final resolution on the fate of O’Reilly “could come as early as the next several days,” the paper reported. The board of directors of parent company 21st Century Fox meets on Thursday.
New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman, who has covered Fox News closely, said Murdoch’s sons James and Lachlan — CEO and co-chairman of 21st Century Fox respectively — want O’Reilly to go, but their father has been resisting.
The elder Murdoch has reportedly said he doesn’t want to fire O’Reilly because “it would appear he was forced into a decision by the New York Times.”
The storm of controversy over O’Reilly was touched off by a feature report in the Times on April 1, which described how Fox News had made financial payments to 15 former staffers after they made allegations of sexual harassment against the Fox host.
O’Reilly said the claims were unfounded, and that he settled the cases to avoid causing distress to his family. But after the Times story ran, new allegations arose making similar claims, and a series of advertisers started pulling their ad campaigns from the top-rated show.
The boycott started with automakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, but others quickly followed. Within a matter of days, more than 45 advertisers had said that they were pulling their ad spending from the O’Reilly show as a result of the allegations. Although most simply moved their campaigns to other Fox programs, it was still a very visible sign of discontent.
As the boycott gathered steam, O’Reilly announced that he was going on vacation, and that’s when the speculation started in earnest that he might not return.
The Fox star has made it clear that he isn’t prepared to go without a fight — his legal team has released a statement saying the “brutal campaign of character assassination” that has been waged against him is part of a “smear campaign orchestrated by far-left organizations” bent on destroying him for political reasons.
Despite O’Reilly’s bluster, however, CNN’s Brian Stelter has pointed out that when O’Reilly signed a new contract with Fox recently, a number of reports said the deal gave the network more leverage over him than previous contracts. That could make it easier for Fox to cut him loose without having to engage in a long, drawn-out legal battle.
For many observers, the O’Reilly situation feels like a replay of last year’s ouster of former Fox chairman Roger Ailes, who was also the subject of multiple sexual harassment allegations from ex-Fox staffers like Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson.
Towards the end, as Ailes was fighting to retain his position, the Murdoch family appeared to be split along very similar lines to the ones that exist now: James and Lachlan wanted to get rid of the Fox chairman, arguing that his presence was toxic for the network. But their father resisted, until at last the decision was finally made.
Similar wheels appear to have been set in motion for O’Reilly. And if and when he ultimately leaves, it could trigger a significant realignment at the conservative news network, as Fox scrambles to fill the void left by one of their star voices.