In a matter of hours this morning the prognosis for the career of Bill O’Reilly — the highest rating host on not only the Fox News Network, but all of cable TV news in the US — went from stable to critical, as media learned of a fight among Rupert Murdoch and his sons over what exactly to do about the embattled TV star. O’Reilly has been under sustained public scrutiny since multiple allegations of sexual harassment against the O’Reilly Factor host surfaced earlier this year. According to US media outlets, O’Reilly could be gone by the end of this week, just as his friend, mentor and former Fox News head, Roger Ailes, was booted last July (with US$40 million in walking away money).
It seems from US reports that Fox chair Rupert Murdoch has become isolated in his desire to keep O’Reilly and defy growing calls for his departure and the impact of the ad boycott. But son Lachlan (co-chair of 21st Century Fox with Papa Murdoch) is reported to have moved to support brother James, CEO of Fox, who wants O’Reilly gone to help remake Fox’s image for the future. James Murdoch drove the ousting of Ailes last year, but had more immediate support from Lachlan on that occasion.
Both O’Reilly and Ailes will be victims of self-inflicted excess linked to their success — no self-control and a pattern of serial sexual harassment of female staff, contributors and others in and around Fox News channel. Ailes built Fox News into the money-making machine it is today for the Murdochs, who control 21st Century Fox via their 39% stake in the voting shares, not their 14% stake in the issued capital of the company. But not even that could save him. O’Reilly has become the dominant figure on US cable news and his nightly program, The O’Reilly Factor, the most watched cable news program and perhaps the most profitable, dragging in well over US$100 million a year in revenue recently. But now, not even that can save him, it seems.
O’Reilly had been earning a reported US$18 million a year before his contracted was extended — ironically around the same time that The New York Times dropped a blockbuster of a bombshell on April 1. It was no joke, claiming that Fox and O’Reilly have paid US$13 million to a group of women (including the largest amount, US$9 million, paid by O’Reilly to one claimant) to settle sexual harassment claims against the Fox News host. O’Reilly denied the claims, saying he had settled them to spare his employer any embarrassment. But many were left wondering, then, why Fox had also settled some claims.
O’Reilly announced a surprise holiday early last week as more cases emerged and advertisers started deserting his program (but most stayed with Fox). At last count, 60 companies or groups who had been advertising on The O’Reilly Factor, nationally or at local levels, had departed. But at least two more claims have since emerged, the latest overnight from a Fox News staffer not directly involved in the news production process, according to some reports.
Despite that, O’Reilly and his supporters at Fox and on various right-wing news websites remained upbeat, confident his pulling power with viewers would see him retained (indeed his audience figures rose in the week after The New York Times report was published, mostly among older viewers who are not in the highly sought after 18-to-49 age bracket).
But then reports surfaced of growing tensions at the top of Fox and 21st Century Fox itself as the Murdoch clan debated whether to retain or force O’Reilly to depart. Up to early Wednesday it seems there was a stalemate as friends of Rupert Murdoch (such as biographer Michael Wolff) questioned the need for O’Reilly’s departure and attacked the sexual harassment cases). But others pointed to the continuing reports of tensions within the family — reports that were emerging from Fox News and 21st Century Fox itself.
Then, Gabe Sherman (the unauthorised biographer of Roger Ailes and a key player in his departure) reported this morning on New York magazine’s website that the younger Murdochs were now moving against O’Reilly.
“Rupert Murdoch built his media empire without paying much attention to corporate norms and rules, but his sons showed with the ouster of Ailes that they wanted to run a different kind of company. What happens to O’Reilly will tell us more about who is winning the intergenerational battle over 21st Century Fox,” Sherman wrote.
The Wrap then reported the emergence of a new claimant represented by lawyer Lisa Bloom, who is also representing Wendy Walsh, a Fox News contributor whose claims were not even known to Fox or the law firm that has been investigating claims. National Public Radio then reported that Fox News was “game playing” a prime-time line up without O’Reilly.
And then well known CNN reporter Brian Stelter claimed that Fox News and O’Reilly (who is on holiday in Italy) are “talking exit”. Either way, we should know definitively by the end of the week if O’Reilly stays or goes.