Even special dispensation from Pope Francis probably won’t save Bill O’Reilly.
O’Reilly was in a VIP line at the Vatican on Wednesday as a holy war over his employment status was apparently climaxing in New York. He’s apparently a goner from his mega-successful Fox News show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” in a turn of events that will further spotlight the precarious nature of finding winning TV personalities.
Indeed, I’ve joked with TV bookers that I am the Darth Vader of cable news: the final guest on the finale episodes of at least eight cable shows on CNN, MSNBC and Al Jazeera America.
And, for every one of those, there are two or three shows that I recall either having been on as a guest, or merely watching on occasion, which are long gone. Ed Gordon, Dylan Ratigan, Oliver North, Gene Randall, Aaron Brown, Glenn Beck, Paula Zahn, Candy Crowley and, well, there are dozens of other hosts lost in the cable wilderness.
For every brilliant find, such as a Rachel Maddow, there’s a laundry list of well-intentioned failures that many TV executives probably don’t cite on their resumes.
A personal favorite: a thankfully short-lived midday MSNBC show hosted by civil rights attorney Ron Kuby and Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa. They sort of worked on a local New York talk radio station but just not at all on TV.
It’s a reminder, too, that even the biggest of stars, like O’Reilly, are dispensable — albeit not without risk. That reality that will surely be broached formally when the 21st Century Fox board convenes Thursday — 12 men and one woman, with Rupert Murdoch and his two sons the only votes that likely count, anyway.
The issues before the board are discussed here in a U.S. News & World Report piece, “O’Reilly on the outside.” It’s a meeting that will surely touch upon the inexact decision-making at the heart of television: the selection of successful show hosts and news anchors.
Ironically, Roger Ailes, the longtime Fox News boss who exited in a precursor to the O’Reilly sex harassment debacle, was clearly brilliant in this vein. Selecting the likes of O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Megyn Kelly or snatching Greta Van Susteren from CNN were not sure-fire bets. Ditto long ago when he turned newspaperman Chris Matthews into a host at “America’s Talking,” a failed precursor to MSNBC that Ailes ran.
And did anybody on the planet think that the 1984 decision by Chicago’s WLS-TV, the ABC-owned station, to hire virtual unknown Oprah Winfrey from Baltimore to host the decidedly local show “A.M. Chicago” would change TV history?
And does anybody know how to repeat Winfrey’s success with anybody else?
As one high-ranking broadcasting executive put it Wednesday afternoon, the “what’s the talent worth?” debate is ageless and endless.
Consider how there were presumably smart — or at least not totally crazy — television executives who bet on talk shows hosted by Wayne Brady, Tony Danza, Magic Johnson, Bonnie Hunt, Anderson Cooper, Kathy Griffin, Sharon Osbourne, Queen Latifah, Megan Mullally, Caroline Rhea, Steve Wilkos, Chevy Chase, George Lopez, Jenny Jones and, well, the list nearly bends to the horizon.
Cooper would seem perfect, would he not, especially for daytime? It just didn’t work.
But the failure ratio may underscore the upside of success. In the case of O’Reilly, Forbes reported that his showed brought in revenue of $446 million last year. That’s perhaps a reason that the Murdochs fumbled for months amid the outrage of female employees over his conduct and, yes, even re-signed him to a long-term contract thought to be in the vicinity of $18 million a year.
There’s already speculation about successors and, for sure, the possibility that the Fox juggernaut will proceed apace, regardless of O’Reilly’s presence, and that recently departed O’Reilly advertisers will resurface.
It comes as the general trend of declining TV viewership is at least momentarily slowed by Donald Trump-inspired ratings boosts for all the cable news rivals.
Also of note is a changing of the guard at Fox as the Murdoch sons take over and surely know that one can’t hold on to older hosts forever (O’Reilly is 67) and have even the vaguest hope of finding some younger viewers. The latter may be a fool’s errand, given a younger generation’s suspicion of TV, but it’s not a defense of letting your stalwarts stumble into senility.
Tucker Carlson replaced Kelly when she left for NBC. As one top TV executive reminded me Wednesday, nobody but nobody thought he would keep, even enhance, her audience. That’s the case so far.
Still, that does not mean that the Kellys and O’Reillys of the TV universe are fungible. For sure, they and hundreds of TV news personalities have benefited from the outright fear of cautious executives about what their absence might mean.
That’s true on both the national and local TV market level. Often, you can’t get into trouble keeping a star, but you can if you let him or her go and suffer ratings consequences. That anxiety has made many even mediocre talents, and their agents and lawyers, wealthy.
Could current O’Reilly surrogate Dana Perino, Carlson or somebody else nearby, like analyst and occasional O’Reilly sub host Laura Ingraham, keep his audience, maybe even lure a few non-geezer viewers into the fold? Yes.
Could they really enhance it? Perhaps, but that’s a long-shot, given audience fragmentation.
But could they also screw up and test even the loyalty of a wildly loyal audience cultivated by Ailes, the brutally pragmatic and visionary programmer of dubious personal morals? Might millions of ad dollars could go elsewhere?
The fair and balanced conclusion in a ratings-driven sphere is obvious: a high-stakes yes.