Why Bill O’Reilly's Scandal Won't Be the Final Straw for His Fox Overlords (Guest Column)
In the cable television universe, 'The O'Reilly Factor' audience is so big that it renders the carriage of FNC indispensable, writes an independent news analyst.
Emily Steel of The New York Times — along with byline-sharer Michael Schmidt — claimed a genuine scoop last weekend when she delivered chapter and verse concerning Bill O’Reilly’s sexual misbehavior behind the scenes at Fox News Channel.
Misbehavior was the half of it. Boorishness and harassment of women by its primetime star cost FNC and O'Reilly a cool $13 million in lawsuit settlements. O’Reilly denies all accusations.
Let’s consider the impact of Steel’s scoop from three perspectives. How does it change the reputation of O’Reilly and FNC in the eyes of the public? In the eyes of the channel’s loyal viewers? And in the eyes of his corporate bosses at 21st Century Fox and the Murdoch clan to whom they answer?
His status as a boor and a cad is now certainly entrenched as part of O’Reilly’s reputation. But in the public eye this is hardly a shock, especially given that his longtime patron and (until recently) loyal boss Roger Ailes was defenestrated as FNC’s chief executive last summer after facing similar accusations of sexist abuse.
Anyway, part of O’Reilly’s onscreen persona is that of the bully who is not intimidated by polite niceties: "Papa Bear," as Stephen Colbert nicknamed him. He famously first crossed over from his niche in cable news to the wide world of viral video when an Inside Edition outtake of a flaming self-righteous rant surfaced in 2008.
A boatload of corporations has pulled advertising from O’Reilly’s primetime Factor on the grounds that they no longer find it compatible with their brands. The defections were led by automobile manufacturers and include, appropriately, the Society for Human Resource Management.
Ideologically speaking, FNC’s journalism has long since dropped its claim to be just as Fair & Balanced as the mainstream media. Its journalism — both its hard news agenda and its primetime commentary programming — now stands self-consciously in a differentiated niche on the righthand end of the political spectrum. The defection of these advertisers marks the inevitable corollary to this journalistic shift: FNC represents a commercial niche as well as a journalistic one.
It has become increasingly impossible for a corporation to market to a mainstream audience while simultaneously being identified with the flagship right-wing news brand. For the moment both the defecting advertisers and FNC’s advertising sales team make the distinction between a boycott of O’Reilly himself and of the channel as a whole. But it is a ridiculous notion that the audience appeal and ideological worldview of the two are separable. In the long run, the commercial logic of abandoning O’Reilly means the abandonment of FNC as well.
And anyway, the fiscal importance to FNC of The O’Reilly Factor derives from its audience size rather than its advertising revenues, even after these defections. In the cable television universe, O’Reilly’s audience is so big that it renders the carriage of FNC indispensable, thereby allowing the channel to charge cable operators top dollar, which is the true source of its fabulous profitability. (In a Tuesday statement, FNC said: “We value our partners and are working with them to address their current concerns about the O’Reilly Factor. At this time, the ad buys of those clients have been re-expressed into other FNC programs.”)
As far as FNC’s viewers are concerned, it is implausible that these most recent allegations will act as the final straw that at last inspires them to defect. The Ailes revelations did nothing to alienate them. Reports of the same boorishness from Donald Trump did not sway them from supporting him. On the contrary, an unreconstructed attitude about gender relations is central to FNC’s brand: a series of gruff old white men, surrounded by young leggy blondes. Since Ailes’ departure, FNC’s primetime has actually boosted its level of testosterone, with the departure of its mainstay female anchors, Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren.
It goes without saying that workplace sexual harassment is against the law. But resentment against a feminist-imposed politically correct rollback of traditional gender roles is, equally, protected by the law. It’s called the First Amendment. Those gender traditions happen to include the notion that one of the functions of women is to be the object of the sexual fantasies of men. That particular First Amendment protection of sexist fantasies is celebrated in spades for all to see throughout FNC’s programming. In the wake of Steel’s scoop, complaints of a hostile environment by its female workforce have reportedly increased. Complaints, yes; surprise, surely not. Its worldview is a throwback to the early '60s: think Gloria Steinem working in the Playboy Club. Bill O’Reilly is FNC’s Hugh Hefner.
This brings us to the third question: What will be the corporate impact of this further set of revelations? The law concerning both equal opportunity for women and financial disclosure for shareholders can be much less forgiving than FNC’s loyal viewership.
There could well be a prima facie case against the channel — and therefore against its corporate parent — in both areas. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was probably in the middle of investigating the cover-up of financial payouts to settle sexual harassment lawsuits last month, when he was ousted by the Trump Administration.
In the face of such legal jeopardy, it cannot be overstated how important it is for Rupert Murdoch and his sons that there is a benign administrative and regulatory environment in place to oversee 21st Century Fox and its operations. Benign not just in the enforcement of these equal opportunity and financial reporting laws, but more widely, in the regulation of telecommunications and media monopolies.
Thus the right-wing-leaning, anti-regulatory ideological sweet spot of Murdoch’s journalistic operations — not just FNC but the New York Post and Wall Street Journal, too, and its Fleet Street operations in London — have always served a double function: first, for audience building, by appealing to a nostalgic, anti-feminist, loyal base with a coherent, reactionary news agenda; second, for mobilizing its clout over that base as a political force to ensure that corporate-friendly governments are elected to pursue corporate-friendly administrative policies.
So will Bill O’Reilly’s lust cause trouble for his corporate overlords? I doubt it.