Fox News is reportedly considering cutting ties with its embattled host Bill O'Reilly amid a growing sexual harassment scandal that has embarrassed the network and led to a wave of advertiser defections from the top-rated program.
The Wall Street Journal and CNN reported Tuesday that Fox executives are weighing a final decision on O'Reilly's future, which could come as early as this week. The news followed a report from New York magazine that said the Murdochs, the controlling family behind parent company 21st Century Fox, are leaning toward removing O’Reilly from the airwaves permanently. Fox News did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
While unconfirmed, the reports are a sign that support for O'Reilly is waning among Fox executives. The network has publicly stood by O'Reilly, even as sexual harassment allegations against him have piled up, and pressure to cut ties with the host has been growing, both from advertisers and outside activist groups.
O'Reilly has not been on the air since April 11, when he told viewers he was going on a planned vacation.
In a statement Tuesday, a lawyer for O'Reilly, Marc Kasowitz, said the host "has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America."
"This law firm has uncovered evidence that the smear campaign is being orchestrated by far-left organizations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons," Kasowitz added. "That evidence will be put forth shortly, and it is irrefutable.”
The O’Reilly Factor, which has for years held the No. 1 spot in cable news ratings, has long been a cash cow for Fox, bringing in $178 million in 2015, according to Kantar Media. But more than 70 advertisers have pulled commercials from the primetime show since the New York Times first broke news that $13 million had been paid to five women to settle harassment allegations against the star host.
While Fox has maintained that those spots have been “re-expressed” into other programs, ad buyers say that they don’t expect their clients to return to The O'Reilly Factor unless the network takes some sort of action. Fox can stem the immediate financial losses from the boycott, but a prolonged ad boycott threatens to do real financial harm to the network.
Ultimately, sources at Fox News told BuzzFeed News that the decision will come down to the Murdoch family. As New York reported, Murdoch and his sons James and Lachlan are now leaning toward pulling O’Reilly permanently, although Murdoch is reportedly reluctant to let it appear that the Times forced his hand.
Despite assurances from the network and O’Reilly’s spokesperson that the host’s two-week vacation was pre-planned, the move has been seen internally at Fox News as a way to buy Murdoch time to make his decision. For his part, O’Reilly has few friends at the network, a status that has likely added to internal speculation about a departure.
If Fox does pull O’Reilly, one obvious question is who will replace the host. When Megyn Kelly left Fox for NBC News in January amid the Roger Ailes scandal, interim CEO Rupert Murdoch tapped Tucker Carlson for the 9 p.m. slot, which proved to be a shrewd decision that only boosted ratings for the key time slot.