Analysis

Fox future: Can Fox News maintain its momentum after losing Bill O'Reilly?

Fox News fired its biggest star among sexual harassment allegations and CEO Roger Ailes had to step down last summer because of similar claims. But its strong post-election ratings mean Fox News brand will likely live on, say experts.

The cable news network has had high ratings and increased cultural relevance since the U.S. election

New power players at Fox News, left to right: Tucker Carlson, Dana Perino, Eric Bolling (Richard Drew/AP Photo, Chris McKay/Getty Images, Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Chances are, you knew who Bill O'Reilly was even if you've never turned on Fox News.

This week, Fox News fired the face that has symbolized the cable network for decades, after O'Reilly fielded allegations of sexual harassment and the network faced mass abandonment of his show by advertisers.

But experts say don't expect Fox to lose much of the momentum it's enjoyed since the beginning of the U.S. presidential election campaign, when it comes to either ratings or cultural importance.

"In the general public, on social media, the mainstream media, Fox's brand is in a lot of trouble," says branding expert Andris Pone of Coin Branding in Toronto. O'Reilly's firing comes on the heels of the departure of the former Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes last summer, also after sexual harassment claims. 

But when it comes to viewers, he says, the Fox News image is doing a lot better than it may seem (Bill O'Reilly's viewership stayed strong even as sexual harassment scandal rolled on).

"Their brand is all about extreme conservatism, anger, outrage, and there is very clearly an appetite for that," says Pone.

A blessing in disguise

Journalist Kyle Smith goes a step further.

"I think it's going to turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Fox News Channel," says Smith of O'Reilly's firing. Smith is currently critic-at-large with conservative news site National Review, but has previously worked for outlets of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which also owns Fox News Channel. 

Protesters from the National Organization of Women hold a rally earlier this month in front of News Corporation's headquarters in New York, urging Fox News's board of directors to fire Bill O'Reilly. (Richard Drew/AP Photo)

"A year from now, when the dust has settled, Fox News channel will probably be better off because they're going to get much younger viewers in that slot," says Smith, adding that most of O'Reilly's impressive four million viewers a night were older than the 25-to-54 demographic most coveted by advertisers.

Robert Shapiro, political science professor at Columbia University in New York, cautions that replacing the star wattage of O'Reilly, and Fox News's other departed star, Megyn Kelly, who left of her own accord for a spot on NBC after the election, will be a challenge.

But he, too, thinks Fox will do just fine if it continues to give its viewers what they want.

"The people they currently have, Tucker Carlson and others, have a certain glitter and lustre of their own, but nowhere nearly that of O'Reilly and Megyn Kelly," said Shapiro in a phone interview with CBC News. "But what they do have are the kinds of conservative takes on issues and interactions with the guests they have on their shows, that's very similar, and that's the reason Fox viewers watch Fox News."

Heirs apparent, and not-so-apparent

Tucker Carlson, 47, is probably the safest bet for O'Reilly's replacement as Fox's go-to-star. For the time being, he's already been tapped by Fox to move into O'Reilly's time slot.

A veteran conservative voice,  Carlson is in some ways like O'Reilly in that his name is known to viewers from both sides of the political spectrum, though perhaps progressives recall him best for coming out badly in an exchange with Jon Stewart in 2004, when Carlson was host of CNN's Crossfire.

Shapiro says Carlson, whose star was born in the heavily politically polarized era of George W. Bush, will do well in the equally stark bipartisan atmosphere of Donald Trump's presidency.

"I think Tucker Carlson has enough on this to maintain the audiences and he has his own conservative perspective and his own knowledge of politics."

New tone of The Five

Smith also has his eye on the hosts of The Five, Fox's five-anchor show that was a ratings grabber even in the dead zone of a 5 p.m. time slot. Now moved into the 9 p.m. slot previously occupied by Tucker Carlson, The Five includes a roster of personalities, including the former White House press secretary Dana Perino and Fox regulars Eric Bolling and Greg Gutfeld.

"Bill O'Reilly basically appealed to angry old men," says Smith, adding that The Five has a distinctly different tone.  "Very smart, funny, Gen Xer, has a lot of banter and discussion. It's not such a grumpy show, it's much more fun, livelier, younger-skewing show."

While it's likely that Fox News will look for fresh faces outside its current roster, Smith doesn't believe you'll see any of the so-called alt-right personalities, or more outrageous conservative social media types, on the network. So no Tomi Lahren, no Milo Yiannopoulous, no radio shock jock Alex Jones.

"You can't go that far out," says Kyle Smith. "The thing about the alt-right is that's definitely the thing that's going to scare away advertisers. Anything that's associated with race-based appeal, absolutely no way are advertisers going to be on-board with that." Smith points to the example of Glenn Beck, who had to leave Fox News despite high ratings because advertisers found his outrageous comments a liability.

Advertisers and Donald Trump

In the end, that's what all experts agree on: Advertisers, hungry for ratings but leery of controversy, will decide the fate of Fox News.

Advertisers, and the president of the U.S., whose incessant tweets about Fox News keep the network in the eyes and ears of viewers who may even disagree wildly with its politics. 

"They've been an unabashed supporter of whatever the president does. Whatever he does, they're going to support him. So there is an appetite for content that Fox has been delivering. They would be fools not to keep delivering that," says branding expert Andris Pone.

"This is not the time for some kind of a big gut check or change of course for Fox in terms of the content that they're delivering."

So Fox will have to change a little to appease the advertisers and attract younger viewers, but not so much to alienate its current fans. The first indication of how the network will seek to do that may be on Monday, when Tucker Carlson welcomes his first guest in Bill O'Reilly's old time slot: transgender reality star, and a longtime Republican, Caitlin Jenner.  

About the Author

Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a national CBC News reporter for the entertainment unit. She appears regularly on The National and CBC News radio programs, specializing in stories on music and literature/publishing. Before joining the arts unit, she was an award-winning current affairs producer for CBC News: Sunday.