Bill O’Reilly, whose nightly program The O’Reilly Factor is a ratings powerhouse for Fox News, has lost more than 20 advertisers this week in light of a New York Times report that he agreed to settlements totalling $13 million with five women over harassment claims. But because powerful men are often allowed to misbehave without consequence — some of them even get to be president — there is plenty of reason to believe that O’Reilly will survive.
Fox recently renewed O’Reilly’s contract, and he has already moved past sex scandals, including one in which he allegedly referred to a loofah as a “falafel” in a lewd exchange. He also kept his job after strongly implying that he had reported from a combat zone in the Falklands War that few reporters were able to access.
“O'Reilly is central to the [Fox News] identity in both longevity and audience size,” Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report monitors American television networks' weekday nightly newscasts, told The Outline. “O'Reilly has survived the loofah gossip and the Falklands War exaggeration, so his survivability in the face of negative publicity is a known factor.”
O’Reilly’s defenders include the president himself, another known sexual harasser. “I think he’s a person I know well — he is a good person,” Donald Trump told the Times on Wednesday. “I think he shouldn’t have settled; personally I think he shouldn’t have settled. Because you should have taken it all the way. I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
Even with Trump on his side, O’Reilly might not wiggle out of this predicament so easily, especially after the downfall of his longtime Fox boss Roger Ailes last year. Ailes, who built Fox into the most dominant force in cable news, was forced to step down amid multiple claims of sexual harassment. “People thought Roger Ailes was untouchable, until he wasn’t,” said Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters who has written extensively about Fox News, told The Outline.
The other precedent is Glenn Beck, who left Fox News after a boycott cost him a slew of advertisers. That presents a possible model for how Fox could determine that O’Reilly is no longer worth the trouble. In July of 2009, when Beck called President Obama a “racist” who “hates white people,” an advocacy group called Color of Change launched a campaign to pressure his advertisers into abandoning him. Its anti-Beck petition collected more than 285,000 signatures, according to the organization, and that — combined with behind-the-scenes work with corporations like Walmart, CVS, and Best Buy — successfully pressured more than 300 advertisers to flee Beck’s show. Fox canceled the program in 2011.
“When Color of Change started their Glenn Beck boycott, urging an ad boycott against Glenn Beck, he didn’t pay much attention to it and Fox News didn’t pay much attention to it,” Boehlert said. “And three months later, 60 advertisers were gone, and a year later two or three hundred were gone. Beck didn’t lose his audience. O’Reilly won’t lose his audience.
“He’s facing a weird combination of the Ailes danger and the Glenn Beck danger.”
Even if the advertisers bailing on O’Reilly simply redirected their money to other Fox programs, that wouldn’t save O’Reilly, he said.
“With Beck (Fox) said, ‘Oh, it’s fine, they’re still spending their money on Fox News,” Boehlert said. “But in the end it was a problem, because Glenn Beck had 20 minutes of advertising he had to sell every hour. If you can’t find people who want to be on your show, even if you have three million viewers, you have to basically give away those spots ... Fox isn’t going to air an hour program every day where they’re not maximizing their profits. They’re not going to cut their ad rate for the number one show, just to prove a point.”
Tyndall is not as convinced by the parallels between O’Reilly and Beck, who was never as established at Fox. “Beck was a late arrival, was not on the primetime schedule, and left after only 30 months,” he said.
“But if Fox can’t monetize three million viewers, what’s the point of having three million viewers?”
The type of approach employed by Color of Change against Beck has also proved costly to the right-wing website Breitbart News, which has reportedly lost hundreds of advertisers due to pressure from a Twitter account called Sleeping Giants. The account protests Breitbart’s white nationalism by encouraging people to send screenshots of ads on the site to companies, along with a polite note expressing concerns.
Back in 2007, radio and MSNBC host Don Imus lost his job after racist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team caused sponsors like Staples, General Motors, Sprint Nextel, GlaxoSmithKline, Procter & Gamble, PetMed Express, American Express, and Bigelow Tea to abandon him.
“The Glenn Beck thing took a year,” Boehlert said. “This thing isn’t going to happen right away, at least I don’t think … With social media, once these things start, I don’t know how you stop them.”