What will Fox do af­ter O’Reilly?

The Washington Post - - THE WEATHER - BY PAUL FARHI

With Bill O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News Chan­nel, the hard part may be over for the scan­dalscarred net­work. Now the harder part be­gins.

Fox’s abrupt ter­mi­na­tion of O’Reilly’s con­tract Wed­nes­day puts the lead­ing ca­ble news net­work in rebuilding mode, be­set by un­cer­tainty. Will O’Reilly’s loyal au­di­ence of roughly 4 mil­lion view­ers stick around with­out O’Reilly on the air? Will ad­ver­tis­ers that aban­doned O’Reilly re­turn to back his re­place­ment? Will the loss of the net­work’s most pop­u­lar host set off a rip­ple ef­fect that di­min­ishes the rest of Fox’s lineup?

Fox’s dy­nas­tic Mur­doch fam­ily — pa­tri­arch Ru­pert and sons James and Lach­lan — cashiered O’Reilly af­ter a nearly three-week drama sur­round­ing sex­ual-ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions against him. O’Reilly and the Mur­dochs were un­able to ride out the pub­lic-re­la­tions de­ba­cle trig­gered by ac­cu­sa­tions that he had abused fe­male em­ploy­ees through­out much of his 21-year ca­reer at the net­work.

O’Reilly, the big­gest star on ca­ble TV news, will walk away from Fox with as much as $25 mil­lion, a sev­er­ance fig­ure set by the con­tract he signed only last month, a source close to the ne­go­ti­a­tions con­firmed to The Post. He just last month re­upped at the net­work with a three-year con­tract whose terms re­port­edly awarded him a year’s salary in sev­er­ance.

Nei­ther Fox nor O’Reilly’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives have of­fi­cially dis­closed what O’Reilly’s sev­er­ance will be. The con­tract’s play-or-pay terms made his boot­ing rel­a­tively sim­ple, if fi­nan­cially painful, for the Mur­dochs.

For his part, the char­ac­ter­isti-

cally lo­qua­cious O’Reilly went rel­a­tively qui­etly. He is­sued a state­ment on Wed­nes­day say­ing, in part, “It is tremen­dously dis­heart­en­ing that we part ways due to completely un­founded claims.” He hasn’t said any­thing fur­ther about his fu­ture.

O’Reilly’s sum­mary dis­missal may have lifted the im­me­di­ate cloud over Fox. But it also raised new is­sues.

Among the largest: Has Fox re­ally re­formed a work­place cul­ture that saw the re­moval of its co­founder Roger Ailes last sum­mer be­cause of se­rial ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions? Given that al­most all of the se­nior ex­ec­u­tives hired by Ailes re­main in place at Fox, that’s still an open ques­tion.

The pro­gram­ming is­sues seem more pro­saic by com­par­i­son. Tucker Carl­son, who will re­place O’Reilly at 8 p.m., proved to be a strong suc­ces­sor to Megyn Kelly af­ter she aban­doned her 9 p.m. pro­gram and jumped to NBC in Jan­uary. (Carl­son and Kelly, of course, ben­e­fited from the enor­mous lead-in au­di­ence O’Reilly sup­plied.) Now, seem­ingly all at once, Carl­son will be the linch­pin of Fox’s lineup; he will pre­cede Fox’s new 9 p.m. pro­gram, “The Five” (which for­merly aired at 5 p.m.), fol­lowed by net­work fix­ture Sean Han­nity at 10 p.m.

Fox has weath­ered this game of mu­si­cal chairs be­fore and come out even stronger in the end. Greta Van Sus­teren jumped ship last sum­mer, land­ing at MSNBC, fol­lowed by Kelly’s de­par­ture. Re­sult: Fox rolled on to record au­di­ences dur­ing the next three months, per­haps aided by cov­er­age of Pres­i­dent Trump’s new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But O’Reilly may be dif­fer­ent. He has been Fox’s sig­na­ture name for two decades, and un­like Kelly or Van Sus­teren, the “tent­pole” prop­ping up the rest of Fox’s sched­ule.

“The de­par­ture of O’Reilly is a big hit to FNC, but it is by no means fatal,” Jef­frey McCall, a DePauw Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who stud­ies the news me­dia, said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day. “For one thing, the [Fox] brand is big­ger than O’Reilly, and fur­ther, the peo­ple who watch re­ally have nowhere else to go for the kind of news they seek. CNN and MSNBC will not ben­e­fit from O’Reilly’s de­par­ture.”

McCall ex­pects Fox’s rat­ings and im­age to re­cover, par­tic­u­larly since Carl­son speaks to the same older con­ser­va­tive view­ers who were O’Reilly’s core au­di­ence. The change may even­tu­ally even prove ben­e­fi­cial, he added: Carl­son, 47, is 20 years younger than O’Reilly, and thus gives the Mur­dochs a younger face around which to build the net­work’s fu­ture.

Au­di­ence sur­veys on O’Reilly’s ef­fect on Fox News are some­what murky, noted Dan Cassino, a pro­fes­sor at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Univer­sity and the au­thor of “Fox News and Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics.” It’s un­clear, he said, whether view­ers come to Fox News to watch O’Reilly and stick around to watch other pro­grams, or vice versa.

Nev­er­the­less, “my sense is that any re­place­ment will likely get lower rat­ings ini­tially,” he said. “But that could ac­tu­ally wind up be­ing more prof­itable for the net­work, as a Tucker Carl­son is a heck of a lot cheaper than Bill O’Reilly is, so marginally lower ad rates aren’t go­ing to hurt as much as they other­wise would.”

Al­ready, the spon­sor boy­cott that seemed to seal O’Reilly’s fate is show­ing signs of re­ced­ing. Sev­eral

“Tucker Carl­son is a heck of a lot cheaper than Bill O’Reilly is, so marginally lower ad rates aren’t go­ing to hurt as much as they other­wise would.” Dan Cassino, au­thor of “Fox News and Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics”

spon­sors — Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Mit­subishi, Sanofi Health­care — said Thurs­day that they are reeval­u­at­ing their plans.

And one of the first com­pa­nies to pull its ads from “The O’Reilly Fac­tor” says it’s com­ing back. The men’s fash­ion com­pany Un­tuckit said it has told Fox that it would like to re­store its ads to the hour for­merly oc­cu­pied by O’Reilly.

“Our con­cern, and the rea­son we ini­tially pulled our ads, per­tained to the dis­turb­ing al­le­ga­tions made against Bill O’Reilly and not with Fox in gen­eral,” Un­tuckit’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Aaron Sanan­dres, said in an in­ter­view. “Fox in­di­cated their de­ci­sion to ter­mi­nate Bill O’Reilly’s con­tract was made af­ter a thor­ough and care­ful re­view of the facts, and so it ap­pears it was a fully in­formed one. I fully re­spect Fox’s de­ci­sion. Ac­cord­ingly, we plan to re­turn to the 8 p.m. hour and will con­tinue to al­lo­cate a por­tion of our ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars to Fox.”

If other ad­ver­tis­ers fol­low suit, as is likely, the net ef­fect of the spon­sor ex­o­dus will have been min­i­mal and yet pro­found.

Min­i­mal be­cause Fox ap­pears not to have lost any money when dozens of com­pa­nies pulled their ads from O’Reilly’s show, af­ter the New York Times re­vealed in early April that Fox and O’Reilly had agreed to a se­ries of se­cret set­tle­ments over the ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions. The ads were sim­ply resched­uled and ap­peared at other hours dur­ing Fox’s broad­casts.

But the boy­cott ul­ti­mately had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on O’Reilly. Ac­cord­ing to peo­ple close to him, the Mur­dochs con­cluded that spon­sors were un­likely to re­turn to “The O’Reilly Fac­tor” as long as there was a chance of new ac­cu­sa­tions. In the end, even though O’Reilly’s au­di­ence re­mained loyal, there was no as­sur­ance that spon­sors would be.

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