Bill O’Reilly’s Survival Strategy
by Judd Legum –
How O’Reilly is trying to weather a sexual harassment scandal.
The O’Reilly Factor, which has aired for 20 years, is the highest-rated and most profitable show in cable news. But in just a week, the show has become a shell of itself.
On April 1, the New York Times reported that host Bill O’Reilly had paid $13 million to five women to settle claims of sexual harassment. That O’Reilly had an issue with his treatment of women wasn’t a shock. It was already public that, in 2009, O’Reilly had paid $9 million to one woman who says he sexually harassed her. But the additional allegations come after Fox News ousted its chairman, Roger Ailes, over charges of serial sexual harassment and has pledged to clean up its act.
In the week that followed, advertisers have left the show in droves. At the beginning of the week, the show boasted well over 30 ads across the hour, many from top national brands. At the end of the week, his show had around 10 ads, hawking catheters and Elvis Presley gospel albums.
Meanwhile, typically outspoken O’Reilly has remained mum. In five shows last week, he did not address the reports that he habitually sexually harassed women at Fox News.
O’Reilly and Fox News appear to be betting that, by remaining silent, interest in the sexual harassment allegations against O’Reilly will wane and things will return to normal.
77 advertisers have dropped the show
Mercedes was the first advertiser to announce it would stop advertising on O’Reilly. Over the course of the week, spurred by the volunteer group Sleeping Giants, dozens of other companies joined them.
One unusual aspect of the advertiser exodus is that many companies aren’t just pulling their ads but offering commentary on O’Reilly’s conduct on the way out.
“In light of the disturbing allegations, we instructed our media buyer this morning to reallocate our ad dollars to other shows effective immediately,” said a spokesperson for Untuckit, a men’s clothing company. Constant Contact, an email marketing firm, said it was pulling its ads “based on the recent allegations and our strong commitment to inclusion, respect, and tolerance in the workplace.”
Overall, 77 companies have pulled their ads. Here is the full list, via Media Matters and other sources:
ADT, Advil, Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, Allergan, Allstate, Amica Insurance, AncestryDNA.com, Angie’s List, Bamboo HR, Bausch + Lomb, Bayer, BeenVerified, BMW of North America, CARFAX, Coldwell Banker, Constant Contact, Consumer Cellular, Credit Karma, Crowne Plaza Hotels, Eli Lilly, Esurance, Flex Seal, Freshpet, Geico, GlaxoSmithKline, GoodRx, H&R Block, Home Advisor, Hulu, Hyundai, Infiniti, Innogames, It’s Just Lunch, Jenny Craig, Land Rover, Laser Spine Institue, LegalZoom, LendingTree, Lexus, Liberty Mutual, Mahindra, Mattress Firm, Mercedes-Benz, MileIQ, Miracle Ear, Mitsubishi, Moberg Pharma, MyPillow, Next Day Blinds, Old Dominion Freight Line, Orkin, Pacific Life, Peloton, Perillo Tours, Pfizer, Progressive, The Propane Council, Reddi Wip, Ring.com, Sanofi, Scottevest, Society for Human Resource Management, Southern New Hampshire University, Stanley Steemer, Subaru, T. Rowe Price, Touchnote, Trivago, TrueCar, UNTUCKit, Verizon, VisionWorks, Voya Financial, WayFair, WeatherTech, The Wonderful Company and Xfinity.
This represents only a fraction of the advertisers who have pulled their ads from O’Reilly’s show. Many advertisers prefer to do so without making a public statement, avoiding controversy and making it easier to return if things blow over.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel
While Monday’s broadcast featured dozens of ads by national brands, Friday’s O’Reilly factor featured around 10 advertisements. In place of the big brands were ads for a “pocket catheter,” gospel CDs, and an Australian pain-relief cream endorsed by Chuck Woolery.
Trump to the rescue
O’Reilly had a very bad week, but one powerful man came to his defense: the President of the United States.
Donald Trump insisted O’Reilly “didn’t do anything wrong” and lamented that he had settled the cases rather than taking him to court.
Trump, of course, is an awkward character witness for O’Reilly. He was famously caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women.
Nevertheless, O’Reilly rewarded Trump, relentlessly pushing his preferred narrative — the phony claim that Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, acted inappropriately when she “unmasked” names in intelligence reports.
The subject of mockery
O’Reilly has became a ripe target for comedians. Alec Baldwin impersonated O’Reilly in Saturday Night Live skit. The satire included a jab at the quality of his remaining advertisers, which on SNL included a spot for “Dog Cocaine.”
Meanwhile on HBO, John Oliver is seeking to place ads on The O’Reilly Factor to educate Trump on sexual harassment and assault. So far he has not heard back.
The ad feature a character called the “Catheter Cowboy.”
Are more women coming forward?
Things are bad for O’Reilly, but they could be getting worse.
In an interview on CNN, attorney Lisa Bloom said she has talked to additional women about O’Reilly’s conduct and expects more to come forward. Bloom already represents Wendy Walsh, a former Fox News contributor who alleges that O’Reilly blackballed her after she rejected his advances.
Fox News announced on Sunday that the company’s law firm would investigate Walsh’s claims against O’Reilly. Walsh is not seeking a monetary settlement.
Distress and concern inside Fox News
David Folkenflik, the media correspondent for NPR, reports that inside Fox News there is “a lot of anguish, distress, and concern among employees at Fox News, particularly women, about the fact that Bill O’Reilly has been allowed to continue almost unrebuked by his employer, seemingly.”
After the ouster of Roger Ailes over claims of sexual harassment, Rupert Murdoch promised it was a “new day” at Fox News. Yet, O’Reilly has been allowed to continue. This has create, according to Folkenflik’s sources, “a cynicism about the degree of sincerity with which the Murdoch family and the top executives are operating.”
The silent treatment
O’Reilly and Fox are betting that — faced with the prospect of more sexual harassment allegations, fleeing advertisers, and cutting late-night comics — by remaining silent the controversy will fade. It is a high risk strategy.
Fox holds their “upfront,” an key sales event where the company sells advertising inventory, on May 15. Thus far, Fox News has been able to shift advertisers from The O’Reilly Factor to other programing. If the controversy continues to engulf the show — or even spread across the network — in May, it could begin to impact their bottom line.
One approach could be to “deal” with the situation by announcing a systematic investigation, suspending O’Reilly or taking some other dramatic action to prove the networks treats sexual harassment seriously.
Instead, O’Reilly and Fox News are keeping quiet and crossing their fingers.