By Jessica Toonkel and Tim Baysinger
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Twenty-First Century Fox Inc has decided to part ways with star cable news host Bill O'Reilly following allegations of sexual harassment, the company said on Wednesday.
O'Reilly said in an April 1 statement that he had been unfairly targeted because of his public prominence. Marc Kasowitz, O'Reilly's lawyer, said in a statement on Tuesday that the television host "has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America."
It is not known exactly how Fox News would handle O'Reilly's exit or whether he would be allowed to say goodbye to viewers on the air, according to the New York magazine report.
Representatives at Fox News and its parent, Twenty-First Century Fox, were not immediately available for comment about how O'Reilly might be replaced. A representative for O'Reilly, who has been off the air on vacation since April 11, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A Vatican photograph showed O'Reilly shaking hands with Pope Francis after a general audience on Wednesday, but it was not clear if the Pope knew who the television host was.
The New York Times reported on April 1 that Fox and O'Reilly, a 20-year veteran of the conservative cable network, paid five women a total of $13 million to settle harassment claims. The five women who received settlements either worked for O'Reilly or appeared as guests on his program, according to the New York Times story.
O'Reilly said in the statement at the time that he had settled only to spare his children from the controversy.
O'Reilly's show, "The O'Reilly Factor," is the top-rated show on Fox News. According to ad-tracking firm Kantar Media, it brought in $147.13 million in advertising revenue in 2016. Twenty-First Century Fox’s last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2016, brought in a total of $7.65 billion in advertising revenue.
But after the New York Times report, advertisers including BMW of North America, Allstate Corp, French pharmaceuticals maker Sanofi SA and T. Rowe Price, pulled their advertising from O'Reilly's primetime "The O'Reilly Factor" show.
O'Reilly's exit, which was first reported by New York magazine, follows that of former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, who was forced to resign in July after being accused of sexual misconduct by a number of women, including former anchor Gretchen Carlson. Ailes has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Twenty-First Century Fox had tapped the law firm Paul, Weiss Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which also looked into the allegations against Ailes, to investigate O'Reilly's conduct.
"The O’Reilly Factor" has been the most watched program on Fox News and was coming off the highest-rated first quarter in its history, averaging 4 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
Investors seemed to take the news in stride. Shares of Twenty-First Century Fox were down less than 1 percent at $30.50 in Wednesday afternoon trading.
O’Reilly’s departure will not have any effect on Twenty-First Century Fox’s overall profitability, said Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research.
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan are co-executive chairmen of the company and son James is chief executive officer.
“They could literally go dark during the time his program airs and they would still be profitable,” said Wieser.
A bigger issue for investors is what the Murdochs will do to prevent the company being in the headlines again just a few months from now, Wieser said. “That’s bigger than O’Reilly,” he said. “The cultural issue is a big issue.”
Bill O’Reilly’s reign as the undisputed king of cable news could be coming to an end as pressure on the Murdoch family to decide what to do with the embattled host intensifies. His position at Fox News has grown increasingly tenuous as support from the Murdoch family showed signs of eroding.
According to The NY Times, O’Reilly’s fate at the network is expected to be discussed on Thursday at a board meeting for Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox. Chief among the considerations is a continuing investigation into O’Reilly’s behavior conducted by the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
Pressure on the company increased on Tuesday when another woman (unidentified) reported sexual harassment allegations against O’Reilly to 21st Century Fox.
The company recently renewed Mr. O’Reilly’s contract, and the Murdoch family, which controls the company, has stood by him as allegations piled up. But after a New York Times article this month detailed harassment allegations against him, more than 50 companies have pulled their advertising from his show.
The Daily Intelligencer’s Gabe Sherman reports that three “sources with knowledge of the discussions” have said that the Murdochs are leaning toward dumping O’Reilly, who is currently on vacation — though no final decision has been made yet.
Sherman, who literally wrote the book on the inner-wokings of Fox News, claims James and Lachlan Murdoch want O’Reilly out, while their father, Rupert, is still holding out hope of keeping the top rated host.
According to The Wrap, Sherman goes on to argue that “deciding O’Reilly’s fate is more complicated than the decision to oust Ailes last summer.”
O’Reilly has dominated cable news for 16 consecutive years and is considered the network’s marquee show. His exit could have detrimental effects on Fox News’ overall ratings. Another Fox News insider tells Sherman Rupert doesn’t want to fire O’Reilly because it would look like he was forced into it by the New York Times.
The paper first broke the news that Fox News and its top host paid $13 million to women claiming they were sexually harassed by O’Reilly.
The fact that O’Reilly has been hemorrhaging advertisers in recent weeks isn’t helping. One network insider told Sherman that Fox executives are “alarmed” by the the loss of ad-revenue.
The Times reports a lawyer for O’Reilly, Marc E. Kasowitz of Kasowitz Benson Torres, said Tuesday that his client was being targeted by liberal groups trying to bring him down.
“Bill O’Reilly has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America,” he said in a statement. “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. That evidence will be put forth shortly, and it is irrefutable.”
On Tuesday another woman reported to Fox News her story of harassment at the hands of O'Reilly, according to attorney Lisa Bloom.
Dear Murdochs, I'm not giving up until he's gone. My phone's ringing off the hook. I'm representing them all for free. Sincerely, Lisa Bloom— Lisa Bloom (@LisaBloom) April 18, 2017
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Bill O'Reilly used to leer at an African-American Fox News clerical worker and called her "hot chocolate," according to attorney Lisa Bloom, who helped the woman report the harassment to the network's hotline.
The woman worked for a different broadcaster in 2008 while this was going on, but The O'Reilly Factor host's office was near her desk, the attorney claims.
"He would never talk to her, not even hello, except to grunt at her like a wild boar," Bloom tells The Hollywood Reporter. "He would leer at her. He would always do this when no one else was around and she was scared."
And with a single vaguely worded tweet, right-leaning news aggregator Matt Drudge on Tuesday unleashed a frenzy of media speculation suggesting that the embattled Fox News host Bill O’Reilly may be done at the network.
O'Reilly has had tremendous run. Very few in the business get to decide when and how things end. Media is most brutal of all industries...— MATT DRUDGE (@DRUDGE) April 18, 2017
Despite the exodus of advertisers, O’Reilly’s show has maintained strong ratings.