Up until a blink of an eye ago, Bill O’Reilly was the strongest franchise at the strongest cable news channel in America. But his rapid fall from Fox News (FOXA) amid allegations of repeated sexual harassment could leave the conservative star in a deep hole that’s hard to dig out of.
Second acts (and third acts, and fourth…) are a hallmark of the American experience. Bill Clinton became popular again after a tawdry White House affair, and a sex tape launched Kim Kardashian to fame and fortune, rather than ignominy. But O’Reilly has earned a different form of notoriety. “If Bill O’Reilly is toxic enough that Fox News is dropping him, I’m wondering what other media organization would want to take a chance,” says John Carroll, a mass communications professor at Boston University. “He could possibly go to RT [the English-language Russian network]. I’m sure the Russians would love to have him.”
O’Reilly, 67, reportedly earned $18 million per year at Fox News, and millions more from a series of historical books, and associated film and TV rights. So he ought to have an adequate nest egg should he retire quietly. But that’s not O’Reilly’s style, and if he continues on as a public persona, his options may be limited.
“The axis of ego”
Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann were both combative TV personalities who fell out with their networks, Beck at Fox and Olbermann at MSNBC and ESPN (DIS). They’re both still broadcasting, but the online networks they host and contribute to have a fraction of the cable reach they left behind.
O’Reilly could do a standard rehab tour—take a few months off, get some therapy, emerge declaring himself cleansed—and migrate to someplace that might not mind his baggage. Breitbart News, the alt-right outlet and former home of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief provocateur, comes to mind, since it seems to relish controversy. But no online network has nearly the reach of Fox News, which typically tops all news networks in ratings, and has premium cachet as Trump’s must-see TV.
O’Reilly has a loyal following, with his show averaging more than 3 million viewers per night prior to the controversy. But that doesn’t mean those people will automatically follow him to wherever he ends up next—especially if it’s a website with no presence on the cable box. Many may just tune in to O’Reilly’s replacement in the 8 p.m. slot, Tucker Carlson.
A key question for O’Reilly is how much of his following is devoted to, well, him, and how much comes from his platform at Fox. Media analyst James Rubec of Cision, a media-analysis firm, says O’Reilly has a sizable following online, including Twitter (TWTR), Reddit, Facebook (FB) and various online forums. But when mentions of Fox are excluded, his online presence drops by 44%. Negative mentions of the sexual-harassment controversy suggest his audience without Fox, following the latest scandal, would fall another 25%.
“O’Reilly would still be a powerful character on the media landscape,” Rubec says. Thing is, he’d be no Bill O’Reilly. Not the O’Reilly of 2016, anyway.
With former Fox News boss Roger Ailes exiled from the network he created, after facing harassment claims of his own last year, and O’Reilly now gone as well, it’s tempting to wonder if the two might team up in the future. Speculation would get juicer if Bannon were to leave the White House, which many political observers expect sooner rather than later. “Ailes, O’Reilly and Bannon could form the axis of ego and start up their own media organization,” says Carroll. On second thought, he says, “Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes teaming up might just double their problems.”
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman