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Bill O’Reilly is down, but not likely out. The ratings king of cable news, dethroned by his sexual harassment scandal, still had a devoted nightly audience of nearly 4 million viewers when he signed off of his final Fox News telecast on April 11. That means he has options.
Terms of the former O’Reilly Factor host’s exit agreement aren’t yet known, but a non-compete clause will be among them. And a minimum six months is standard in news media — not that any of Fox News’ direct competitors will likely touch the fiery conservative commentator. O’Reilly saw more than 50 advertisers flee after numerous settled cases of workplace harassment came to light, ultimately ushering in his exit after two decades on the network. No, experts suggest that future opportunities for O’Reilly will be found just outside the glow of traditional limelight: on the radio, with an over-the-top platform or in his lucrative and pre-existing publishing career.
“He can probably recover if he changes the basic persona that’s been the source of his success,” observes Lanny Davis, a Democratic strategist and crisis manager who worked with O’Reilly in the past. “Is that likely? I don’t think so. But If he stays with his current persona, he can certainly have a future with a specific audience.”
Evidence of that audience standing by the hotheaded O’Reilly, whose commentary has always been mixed with performance art, is not beyond reproach. But it is telling that his ratings were not adversely affected during the seven telecasts to air after the scandal broke. In fact, his ratings improved from the weeks before.
“Bill’s followers are loyal to Bill — that is why you see the very unusual pop at 8 p.m.,” says Jonathan Klein, founder and CEO of subscription video platform TAPP and former CNN/US president. “In Bill’s case, there’s active tune-in because viewers love him, and there’s active tune-out when his show is over.”
Klein suggests the best option for O’Reilly is the same one taken by another former Fox News personality. Glenn Beck, too inflammatory for even cable’s home of conservative commentary, found immediate success after segueing into his own platform with TheBlaze (originally Glenn Beck TV) in 2011. That empire now boasts TV distribution, a robust website and a large radio operation. Granted, Beck’s only baggage was crying on air and dramatically gesturing to conspiracy-covered chalkboards. But while O’Reilly may be mired in a legitimate image problem, he does have a bigger built-in following.
“At 4 million viewers a night and a social following in the millions, there is certainly a place for a Bill O’Reilly streaming service,” says Jon Cody, founder and CEO of OTT portfolio TV4. “Candidly, it would be foolish for him not to do it. That said, it is hard for an individual to carry a sustainable, long-term brand in the emerging streaming world, but a broader conservative political channel or other targeted thematic channel headlined by O’Reilly in OTT makes a lot of sense.”
A subscription-based service, not reliant on advertisers, could be launched without a mea culpa. And it doesn’t appear that any kind of apology is in the cards for O’Reilly. His Wednesday statement about the end of his Fox News tenure was unrepentant in its reference to the allegations. “It is tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims,” he wrote. “But that is the unfortunate reality many in the public eye must live with today.”
Playing the martyr card could potentially appeal to his base. Eric Dezenhall, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management consultant, says that outspoken, unapologetic clients often weather crises better than the quiet ones. “I don’t see him doing the contrition route very well, and I don’t see it being especially profitable for him,” says Dezenhall. “O’Reilly has a history of swinging back hard. He’ll do what he does and what [Donald] Trump does — and that is to say that this is all a witch hunt.”
O’Reilly certainly seems armed for a battle. He has retained “master of disaster” crisis consultant Mark Fabiani — Davis calls him “the best” — to navigate his new reality. What they do next depends on how many other shoes drop. One thing seems very clear, though: No one is mistaking the end of O’Reilly’s Fox News era with retirement.
“These guys want to die at their desks,” adds Klein. “Bill has got a mission. He loves the spotlight, and he’ll want to leverage the moment. His ardent fans are going to feel the abyss when he is gone, and that is a moment when Bill could strike.”
Marisa Guthrie and Natalie Jarvey contributed to this report.
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