Monday, April 23, 2018
TV and Media

O'Reilly put Fox News on the map; what's next for him?

Bill O'Reilly has long been an imposing presence in cable news and the so-called culture wars.

The 6-foot, 4-inch former high school history teacher from Long Island demonstrated that a strong opinion could translate into a powerful platform and big profits long before social media — or even President Donald Trump — was a thing. O'Reilly helped boost Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel into a $1 billion-plus-a-year business.

But in the wake of his dismissal Wednesday over allegations of sexual harassment, it remains to be seen whether the scandal would mortally wound his reputation or dent his business prospects.

"He had a massive megaphone to talk to the people — and that has been taken away," said Fred Cook, director of the University of Southern California Center of Public Relations at the Annenberg School. "I think he's a little like Donald Trump in that he has a loyal following. Those hardcore supporters will continue to support him and may even be more supportive of him after this."

O'Reilly, who has been on vacation for the last week, including a visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday, has asserted that the allegations that he sexually harassed women who appeared on his show are "unfounded." Parent company 21st Century Fox said in a statement: "After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O'Reilly have agreed that Bill O'Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel."

It is a harsh fall from grace for one of television's most bankable stars. "The O'Reilly Factor" long has been one of the most popular programs on cable TV, this year averaging 4 million viewers an episode, according to ratings company Nielsen.

O'Reilly masterfully turned his Fox News bully pulpit into a springboard for his publishing pursuits. He is one of the country's most popular nonfiction authors with his "Killing Lincoln," "Killing Kennedy" and "Killing Jesus" books, several of which have been made into TV movies on the National Geographic Channel (also owned by Fox).

O'Reilly's "Killing" series books have consistently sold 1 million or more copies in hardcover, a rare achievement in publishing. He had other best-sellers, including "Bill O'Reilly: Culture Warrior," the memoir "A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity" and his most recent work, "Old School," which includes passages urging the respectful treatment of women.

"His show was a massive platform for him and supported everything he's doing," Cook said. "It will be harder for him to reach the same number of people."

In recent years, the 67-year-old TV host and author mentioned during various talk show appearances that he would eventually slow down. But he remained busy outside his Fox News studio. He has headlined live shows around the country with comedian Dennis Miller called "The Spin Stops Here Tour," which is still scheduled to make stops in Baltimore, Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif., later this year.

"This (scandal) has definitely hurt his brand in the broad sense, but he will undoubtedly bounce back," said Marlene Morris Towns, an adjunct marketing professor at Georgetown University in Washington. "He will find a home because his super-loyal fan base will still support him."

Industry insiders suggested that O'Reilly might concentrate efforts on his books and turning them into TV movies. O'Reilly and co-author Martin Dugard are due to release another book in the "Killing" series in September, and a spokeswoman for publisher Henry Holt and Co. said that plans had not changed.

Some suggested he could earn big fees by hitting the speaking circuit. And others said he might even re-create some of his cable news success with a show on radio or an upstart internet streaming service.

O'Reilly also could resurface as a commentator on traditional television, such as for the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group, a Maryland TV station chain that has shown an appetite for owning TV content and this month hired Trump's former spokesman, Boris Epshteyn, to be its chief political analyst. (A Sinclair executive could not be reached for comment).

"He has a broad loyal viewership that has an almost universally favorable view of him," said Kyle Dropp, co-founder and chief research officer of Morning Consult, a Washington polling and market research firm. "When other hosts switch platforms, they usually have a large base that moves with them."

Former Fox News personality Glenn Beck, for example, started a digital network called The Blaze, which initially attracted a sizable audience.

However, some TV executives noted that O'Reilly's audience — largely older white men — might not follow O'Reilly if he opted to make a comeback through an internet venture. According to Nielsen data, the median age of his television audience is 67 — the same age as O'Reilly.

"His audience will be less likely to find him on an alternative platform," predicted Towns of Georgetown.

O'Reilly worked hard to build himself into a bigger brand than many TV news celebrities. In addition to his books and live tour, his website offers a collection of "No Spin" merchandise, including hats, mugs, keychains shaped like the United States and "Patriots Welcome" doormats.

Over the years, O'Reilly also inspired copycats, serving as the model for the pompous TV pundit that Stephen Colbert played, tongue-in-cheek, for years on Comedy Central before Colbert decamped for CBS.

O'Reilly relished his role as a foil, and he might even benefit from a perception that he was unfairly targeted by liberal activists. Trump said this month that he didn't think his friend, O'Reilly, did anything wrong. And on Wednesday, Beck suggested that his former colleague was the victim of a smear campaign by liberal activists.

The group Media Matters for America, which is a vociferous critic of Fox News, said Wednesday that its efforts to organize an advertiser boycott of O'Reilly's show were legitimate.

"It's not a smear campaign," Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, said in an interview. "This has been a deeper problem at Fox News — it's the larger culture at Fox News and that Fox was handling this in a blithe way."

O'Reilly recently signed a new employment contract with Fox, so he likely will be leaving the company with a generous payout. Few expect him to stay away from the spotlight long-term.

"But he won't have as large of an audience," said Towns. "I think O'Reilly will become less of a factor going forward."

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