Bill O’Reilly’s sudden separation from Fox News is far from a major surprise in the media world. The franchise quarterback of cable news’ 800 lb gorilla has been dogged by accusations and lawsuits concerning sexual harassment towards female coworkers and colleagues. For a news network with as much political clout as Fox, a network whose branding revolves around embracing conservative middle American values, doing anything short of ditching O’Reilly was risky but also essential to its future.
Yes, Fox will suffer a ratings hit for this to be sure. While losing Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly did cause a mild ratings blip, they were considered “traitors” by hardcore conservative white males who are, like it or not, Fox News’ core demographic. O’Reilly was custom built to appeal to this demographic; he was the one of the originals, a stalwart, the man whose “No Spin Zone” and “We’re Looking Out For You” slogans were not just mere advertising schtick-turned-billion dollar empire, they were the battle cry for blue-collar males who felt abandoned by every political party. He was the “Everyman” mouthpiece for those who felt betrayed by business and the America their parents helped build, and who embraced President Trump with intense fervor. To a demographic whose faith in the American Dream had been shattered to its core, O’Reilly was that great prophet with a message harkening back to yesteryear, only with a no-filter style which endeared him as refreshingly blunt and honest to those watching.
O’Reilly took his brusque, zero filter, in-your-face style and translated it into a program and merchandise line gobbled up by fans the way hungry dogs inhale a barrel of Blue Buffalo. I’ll even admit I was quite entertained by his style for many years until I noticed his program had become a bit formulaic. While his fictional novella Those Who Trespass was rather entertaining, I did find Who’s Looking Out for You to be a bit more preachy. Once the formula of his message became repetitive and predictable, and his choice of advertising endorsements became questionable, I chose to walk away from his program. That said, to say his presence will be missed by Fox News is no understatement, but jettisoning him was also a necessary business choice.Fox News is at a massive crossroads. Its former chief, Roger Ailes, was ousted by the same sort of issue which ultimately led to O’Reilly’s removal. Megyn Kelly openly lamented the network’s “anti-woman” culture, and even longtime evening anchor Sheppard Smith has recently begun breaking ranks with network with regards to President Trumps remarks on Twitter. Though Fox has shown little compunction for dropping top-rated hosts who later became liabilities (remember Glenn Beck?), the decision to deep-six cable news’ most popular host, whose program has been rated tops for over a decade, had to have been precipitated by not just FNC’s legal eagles, but also by marketing execs who saw a profound Faustian Bargain in keeping the embattled personality in the air. Sexual harassment charges are hardly uncommon in the workplace or life in general. It’s an issue many men encounter at least once in our lifetimes and most of try to learn from, though many of us are not as successful as we’d like to be. However, for Fox News to be so concerned about this issue as to end a long-running, highly successful opinion program such as The O’Reilly Factor, there have to be other factors in play. Advertisers had already been dumping the program in steady numbers, and it’s been quite evident that Fox News has been retrenching itself to appear more woman-friendly in this era where the slightest misstep can cause a damaging social media backlash. What was done likely was not just the preclusion of legal liability; it applied a tourniquet to a gaping wound on the Fox News brand. Chances are Fox News will likely re-examine exactly how it approaches its opinion entertainment operation. MSNBC (Keith Olberman) and CNN (Peter Arnett) each had to deal with these issues, and the legacy networks had dealt with their own problems on more than one occasion (Dan Rather, Brian Williams), but these were largely the result of work fabrication or bombastic offensive statements. Fox News’ problem is far more challenging – harassment stories of any sort are damaging because they speak to the cultural climate of a workplace. Fox News’ brand has long been criticized for the sort of ideology which many say enables the sort of behavior O’Reilly is accused of. The challenge for Fox News won’t be in replacing O’Reilly – that’s impossible – but rather in how they adjust their overall programming to not only demonstrate they are addressing said behavior, but also to appeal to a broader base of viewers while not appearing to be cowardly sellouts. Their greatest risk at this moment is the perception by those on the far right, who are the networks most loyal viewers, that Fox News is catering to those perceived as “snowflakes” by their current core demographic. This is, in essence, a “coming of age” moment for Fox News as a media organization.
Fox News can no longer scream “mainstream media conspiracy” on this one. When you are the top dog in the block for over two decades, YOU are the one who is officially “mainstream.” This will not be easy for Fox News, but growing up and coming of age never is.