“You would have to nuke that place to get rid of the horrible vibes in there.” -- a former Fox News producer
Prior to being sacked last month, Bill O’Reilly served as the programming tent pole for Fox News, as he had done for the past two decades. Sitting at his 8 p.m. perch, O’Reilly regularly attracted the biggest audience in cable news and set the table for the network, as the shows that followed his each weeknight did their best to hang onto his gargantuan lead-in.
The unassailable blueprint worked to perfection and represented one key reason why Fox has been able to print money for Rupert Murdoch’s parent company, 21st Century Fox.
This year, thanks in part to an across-the-board surge in cable news viewing that coincided with Donald Trump’s presidency, O’Reilly had been posting some of the biggest numbers of his career, averaging 4 million viewers each night during the first three months of 2017 and logging 3.6 million on his last show.
Then on April 18 came O’Reilly's end at Fox after multiple reports of sexual harassment spurred an advertiser boycott. His wasn’t the first big departure -- CEO Roger Ailes was fired last summer after former host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him, prompting numerous other current and former employees to come forward and report that he had harassed them (Ailes denied the allegations). But unlike Ailes’ departure, O’Reilly’s impacts the nightly lineup.
And on Monday night (the most recent for which data are available), Tucker Carlson, who inherited O’Reilly’s suddenly vacant 8 p.m. seat, drew 2.6 million viewers in that hour, a noticeable decline from O’Reilly's usual figures.
So, yes: The on-camera and off-camera exodus that continues at Fox News does matter.
Because, of course, it’s not just O’Reilly. Fox, which boasted impressive stability over the years and whose prime-time lineup had remained nearly unchanged for more than a decade, has been stunned by a series of high-profile departures, the likes of which the company has never seen.
And the claims and the lawsuits filed by Fox employees continue, with reporter Diana Falzone reporting gender discrimination in a suit filed Monday. On some days, the company looks more like a criminal enterprise than a news organization.
The wheels started turning on O’Reilly’s ouster last month, when a New York Times investigation revealed that Fox and O’Reilly had spent approximately $13 million to pay off female colleagues who had reported harassment by O’Reilly. After an advertising boycott targeted O’Reilly’s show, the host was dismissed and reportedly given a $25 million payout.
So, in less than 12 months, numerous key players have been publicly forced out at Fox, while others have walked away from the network. Longtime anchors Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren also both decamped amid the rolling turmoil. Seen as a whole, that represents an unprecedented migration away from Fox News.
It’s important to note that post-exodus, there appears to be no attempt to change the content on Fox News itself. Murdoch and his sons, who oversee the channel, seem to be fine with that. They claim they’re trying to clean up the workplace culture, but even that assertion seems dubious.
One Fox veteran suggested that the company’s entrenched dysfunctional culture is beyond fixing, no matter how many executives are let go. “You would have to nuke that place to get rid of the horrible vibes in there,” one former Fox News producer who worked under Shine and Ailes told me this week. “And I'm not even talking about the ill effects of creating the asinine programming day in and day out.”
Meanwhile, I remain skeptical that Fox’s often-rancid on-screen content can remain the same while the off-camera culture supposedly improves.
As Josh Marshall noted at TPM: “That toxic culture is inextricably tied to the product itself: a worldview of resentment and provocation, contempt for changing cultural mores about sex, gender, race and a slew of other things.”
As for how all the forced personnel changes will affect the channel’s performance, keep in mind, dynasties don’t just happen. (Even unwanted ones like Fox News’.) They don’t just happen in sports, business, or the television news business. Just ask the Today show.
Or, more specifically, dynasties don’t last forever. And it’s possible that Fox News is facing that reality in a way that it hasn’t since before the Iraq War more than a decade ago. That was the last time Fox wasn’t on top of the cable news ratings mountain.
I can hear skeptics dismissing the idea that Fox’s future isn’t bright. But I can also still hear skeptics who scoffed at the idea that a fledgling advertising boycott targeting O’Reilly would ever threaten his Fox time slot.
I’m certainly not suggesting any type of imminent demise is looming. As a longtime Fox observer, I understand that the channel has developed a fanatically loyal core audience that has shown it’s willing to tune into whatever programming configuration Fox News comes up with. But I also think the drip, drip, drip of on-air changes and off-camera firings and departures could unquestionably alter the dynamics for the long-running ratings winner.
Note that during the first quarter of this year, MSNBC was the fastest growing cable news network, posting a 61 percent increase in prime-time viewers. That represented a huge audience spike as compared to 2016, which was already a news-drenched election year. And MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has been posting rating victories over Fox News at 9 p.m.
So skeptics, take note: The timing of Fox News’ extended implosion is not a good one for Murdoch.