With acerbic host Bill O’Reilly the latest and arguably most visible departure from Fox News over sexual harassment allegations, parent company 21st Century Fox is at a watershed moment.
Although O'Reilly was a key ratings driver for the network’s prime-time lineup, mogul Rupert Murdoch and his two sons ultimately presided over a sexual harassment investigation and ouster of the longtime host of The O’Reilly Factor (since renamed just The Factor and headed by Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson).
“The challenge is a huge one for them. They were already beginning to think about the O’Reilly succession, but now they’ve got to throw together a solution under duress,” Jonathan Klein, CEO of TAPP Media and former president of CNN U.S., told NBC News.
“O’Reilly was bigger than his show. He was more of an outsized character,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of Public Communication at the American University. "This is a network created and designed to appeal to and flatter the biases of its viewers... It’s unclear whether there are more people out there who can carry that torch for Fox.”
The Younger Generation
What’s also unclear, Steinhorn said, is whether the Murdoch sons, who have become more involved in the day-to-day running of the business over the past year, will want to fill O’Reilly’s shoes with another aging white, male firebrand to hang on to a graying audience, or send a signal that Fox is moving in a new direction and make a play for a younger generation of viewers.
“This can definitely serve as an opportunity for the Fox News channel to build fresh images for their news programs, strengthen their relationship with existing viewers, and attract new audiences,” said Jiyoung Cha, assistant professor in the department of broadcast and electronic communication arts at San Francisco State University.
Co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch (he shares the title with his father) touted growth in the time slots before and after The O’Reilly Factor when speaking to investors on the company’s February conference call. “Fox News finished 2016 as the most-watched cable network and achieved its highest-rated year in history,” he said, crediting the “continued loyalty” of viewers.
“I think it’s a bit of a dilemma,” Steinhorn said. “I think you have to look at O’Reilly’s success in large part because, in essence, he flattered his audience.”
“In general, on-air personalities play an important role in establishing brand awareness, recognition, and loyalty to news networks and programs,” Cha said.
“If Tucker does well, that would be a huge gift to Fox News,” Klein said. “But it’ll take time for anybody to reach the level of audience that Bill O’Reilly achieved,” he said.
Ultimately, O’Reilly’s departure wouldn’t put too much of a dent in the company’s bottom line, thanks to America’s overall media consumption trends, predicted Pivotal Research Group senior analyst Brian Wieser.
“If Tucker Carlson takes over the O’Reilly slot, and The Five takes over Carlson’s slot — and something else fills in for The Five — there’s probably a negative impact on ratings, but probably only a modest one in context of Fox News’ total day,” he said. “The secular growth for news and opinion-related programming will overwhelm program-specific issues.”
A Bigger Deal on the Horizon
But even if the financial fallout might be contained, the PR and HR fallout is likely to linger. Fox is seeking to buy the part it does not already own of British satellite TV company Sky, a $14.5 billion deal for which it needs regulatory approval.
An earlier attempt to acquire Sky stalled due to the phone-hacking scandal at Fox-owned tabloids, so any further scandals at this point would not bode well for the deal.
“I think a lot of what they are doing relates to presenting a better face to [regulatory body] OfCom, or at least an acceptance internally that they need to be mindful of this interest,” Weiser said.
“Are they of a new and different generation?” Steinhorn said of Lachlan and James Murdoch. “You have to hope so, and that this isn’t just a Band-Aid fix.”
Even if Fox hangs on to its viewers, talent could be another matter. Dan Ryan, principal of Ryan Search and Consulting and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management Talent Acquisition Expertise Panel, said companies that develop a reputation of having a hostile corporate culture can struggle to attract and retain the best employees.
The media industry can be tough enough on staffers, even without the cloud of a hostile workplace hanging over their heads. Scott Reinardy, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, found in a 2013 study that more than one in five of 900 working TV journalists he surveyed exhibited signs of burnout; among that population, 80 percent were, at best, ambivalent about remaining in the industry in the future. Another study, two years later, found that female journalists experience a higher level of career burnout — and that was all before 2016’s grueling presidential election cycle.
“If it becomes part of the culture, it becomes a real issue. Organizations can’t tolerate those kinds of behaviors, especially in today’s workplace where the fight for talent is so tough,” Ryan said. “They have to make sure their leadership understands what is and is not appropriate behavior.”