Bill O’Reilly, the longtime Fox News star, is leaving the channel amid reports of sexual-harassment allegations made against him. Below, New Yorker writers offer some initial reactions to the news.
Credit where it’s due: Fox News finally got rid of Bill O’Reilly, a mere decade and a half after finding out that he was a flamboyant workplace harasser. In 2002, the network paid out the first of five harassment settlements, which would eventually amount to thirteen million dollars spent on his behalf to compensate female complainants. The decision to offload the network star (months after losing Megyn Kelly, whose departure is said to have been influenced by O’Reilly’s open, apparently sanctioned sexism) didn’t come out of moral rectitude; rather, a combination of outraged women inside the company, vanishing advertisers, and mounting protest seems to have forced the Murdochs’ hand. O’Reilly, whose annual salary at Fox was eighteen million dollars, had cultivated an audience who didn’t mind his coarseness and aggression toward women. Sure, in 2006, he mocked a girl who’d been raped and murdered for, among other things, her choice of outfit, saying, “Every predator in the world is going to pick that up at two o’clock in the morning.” Sure, two years earlier, he’d threatened Andrea Mackris, a producer at the network, who had accused him of—among many other things—fantasizing on the phone about taking a shower with her and fondling her body with a “falafel thing.” (He meant a loofah.) And, sure, his teen-age daughter told a court examiner that she’d seen O’Reilly choke his ex-wife and drag her down the stairs by the neck. Why would Fox News do anything about any of this? After all, O’Reilly’s enormous audience had remained loyal. The most chilling detail may be that, as the scandal was breaking, in early April, O’Reilly’s nightly ratings went up.
The departure of Bill O’Reilly—like the departure, last summer, of the founding C.E.O. of Fox News, Roger Ailes—suggests that the network’s old way of operating has become unsustainable. But much of the old guard remains: the network’s co-president is Bill Shine, who is known as Ailes’s former right-hand man. And nothing about the network’s public response to the latest scandal has conveyed the impression that it is eager to remake its corporate culture.
It seems possible, though, that Tucker Carlson’s promotion to the eight-o’clock slot that O’Reilly is vacating will, in a small but noticeable way, change the way people think about what Fox News does. The network developed a reputation, in the aughts, for being ferociously loyal to President George W. Bush. (In fact, O’Reilly’s support for the war in Iraq was more lukewarm than most people remember. On the eve of war, he said that he was inclined to support Bush, but added, “Nobody knows for sure what the absolute right thing to do is.”) Carlson, who is something of a contrarian, loves to criticize the most intemperate critics of President Trump, and he can be particularly withering on the topic of immigration. But that doesn’t mean Carlson always supports the President. And, from time to time, he has shown himself willing to aim the force of his industrial-strength skepticism toward the current Administration.
At first glance, Fox News’s decision about whether to keep or remove Bill O’Reilly could be seen as one with relatively minor financial stakes. Yes, his show brought in more than a hundred million dollars in revenue last year, and his ratings are great, but losing O’Reilly might mean the loss of no more than thirty or so million dollars, directly. That shouldn’t be enough to keep the leaders of a multi-billion-dollar company up at night. Yet few television personalities commanded as loyal and vocal an audience as Bill O’Reilly did. Stoking and fuelling his viewers’ outrage was, essentially, his business. That viewer loyalty has been a major advantage for Fox News in negotiating something called carriage fees.
Cable channels make money in two ways. Like broadcast stations, they are paid to air commercials. But they also receive money from the many cable providers that carry their channels. Cable providers pay these channels a fee for every one of their subscribers, regardless of how many actually tune in to a particular channel. If you are a cable subscriber, you pay more than a dollar a month for Fox News, even if you never watch it. (You also pay around six dollars for ESPN, a bit more than sixty cents for CNN, and a host of other fees for channels you’ve never even heard of.) Those fees are negotiated once every few years between the cable channel and the various cable providers. The essence of those negotiations is this: the channel says that, if a provider doesn’t pay a high per-subscriber fee, the channel will pull its programming, and viewers will be angry—at the cable provider. The fee can be seen as something of a fear tax. The more scared of customer anger a cable provider is, the more it will pay for a channel’s availability. As The Wrap has noted, this creates an odd market in which channels that are more popular than Fox News, such as USA Network, History Channel, and TBS, make far less in subscriber fees than the news channel. People might love to watch “Law & Order” reruns all day long, and Mr. Robot has a loyal audience, but viewers won’t run into the streets to protest if they can’t see the latest episode of those shows.
Presumably, the terms of any settlement between O’Reilly and Fox News will be designed to insure that he never unleashes his fans against the network. But the next time Fox News goes to negotiate with cable providers, it will not have quite so potent a threat in its back pocket. That could cost the company many hundreds of millions of dollars.