NEW YORK — The rapid defection of advertisers this week from Bill O’Reilly’s show because of sexual harassment allegations raises what once seemed an unthinkable question: Can O’Reilly survive at Fox News Channel?
In just the few days since The New York Times reported that Fox News’ most popular prime-time host and his employer have paid $13 million to five women to settle allegations he mistreated them, some 20 advertisers have said they don’t want their products associated with O’Reilly’s show, drugmaker Eli Lily and Coldwell Banker among the latest. Others include Mercedes-Benz, Bayer and Allstate.
The companies appeared to be acting on their own, to the surprise of advocacy groups that usually orchestrate such campaigns.
“This is a surprisingly quick and strong exodus of advertisers,” said Jane Hall, a professor at American University’s School of Communication and a former Fox media analyst.
The key will be whether the advertisers that backed out will stand their ground. It’s not uncommon for a company to abandon a show at the first sign of controversy, then slip back a few weeks later when things quiet down.
Some of the companies that abandoned O’Reilly issued strongly worded statements that may be hard to explain if they return, said Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal watchdog Media Matters.
Fox parent 21st Century Fox has many factors to weigh. O’Reilly has long been its most lucrative personality. His show generated $178 million 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.
It is also largely because of O’Reilly that Fox News is the most popular network in all of cable TV and can thereby extract higher rates from cable companies to carry it.
Ending O’Reilly’s show without evidence his appeal is dwindling carries a risk: It could ignite a backlash among fans.
“When your favourite show leaves a network, you don’t watch the network very much anymore,” said Jonathan Klein, former CNN president.
It’s essentially up to Rupert Murdoch and his sons to decide when or if O’Reilly has become a liability. The Murdochs aren’t afraid to act quickly and without sentimentality: Gretchen Carlson filed her sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes on July 6, and he was out of a job by July 21.
One sign in O’Reilly’s favour: The Wall Street Journal reported that Fox renewed his contract, which was due to expire at the end of the year, while fully aware of the accusations, which stretch back more than a decade.
On Wednesday, the pugnacious conservative received the endorsement of Fox’s most highly placed fan, President Donald Trump, who called O’Reilly “a good person” in an interview with the Times on Wednesday.
“Personally I think he shouldn’t have settled,” Trump said. “Because you should have taken it all the way. I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
O’Reilly hasn’t admitted any wrongdoing and said he settled for the sake of his family.
Advertising boycotts have succeeded in the past. Glenn Beck was essentially forced out at Fox when his advertising dried up following a sustained campaign against him that eventually enlisted some 200 companies, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Color of Change.
But similar efforts to force Rush Limbaugh off the radio haven’t worked. Robinson said an advertising boycott was more difficult to organize against Limbaugh because he receives more support from local companies in individual markets.
“This is about money,” Robinson said. “Bill O’Reilly will stay on the air as long as he is making money.”
A danger for O’Reilly is if he becomes symbolic of a toxic workplace culture intolerant of women and out of step with the times. Besides Ailes, Fox recently fired a male executive for trying to force a subordinate to perform oral sex in his office, and a female executive for repeated instances of racial intolerance.
When Ailes was forced out, 21st Century Fox said it was determined to change the culture to make it a more respectful workplace, and its top human resources executive this week re-emphasized that in a staff memo following the filing of another lawsuit by a woman who said her career stalled because she rejected Ailes’ sexual advances. The lawsuit, filed by Julie Roginsky, charged that current Fox management did nothing to investigate her claim.
Separately, the securities fraud division of U.S. Attorney’s office in New York is investigating how 21st Century Fox handled the scandal. Prosecutors have declined to discuss the case, but a lawyer for one of the alleged harassment victims has said his client received a subpoena from a grand jury looking into whether Fox News sought to hide settlements.
One of O’Reilly’s former producers, Joe Muto, said O’Reilly’s natural instinct ‚Äî indeed, a key part of his persona ‚Äî is to fight back. But O’Reilly was silent about the accusations in the first two shows he anchored after the initial Times story.
“My gut says he survives this round as long as no other shoe drops,” Muto said. “He’s going to hunker down and might lose other sponsors, but if nothing else happens he’ll survive.”