Even with the defection of more than 50 advertisers, Bill O’Reilly is weathering his latest sexual-harassment scandal. Ratings for “The O’Reilly Factor” are up, his new book “Old School” is a bestseller, and he just signed a rich new deal with Fox News Channel.
That makes this an even tougher test for corporate parent 21st Century Fox, and leaders James and Lachlan Murdoch. While O’Reilly is apparently immune to dishonor (and to fleeing sponsors, as long as his faithful viewers tune in), the corporation’s reputation is on the line. And the Murdochs haven’t done much to condemn the allegations of sexual harassment, or detail how they plan to expand efforts to make sure employees, and particularly women, feel safe in the workplace. A hotline isn’t enough.
Ironically, the company has recently made great strides in naming women to high-profile posts on the film side. Stacey Snider is chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Film, and under her, Emma Watts is vice chairman, Pamela Levine is president of worldwide theatrical marketing, Vanessa Morrison is Fox Animation president, Elizabeth Gabler runs Fox 2000, and Nancy Utley oversees Fox Searchlight (with Steve Gilula).
As for the conglomerate’s TV operations, Fox Broadcasting broke ground 25 years ago by naming Lucie Salhany as the network’s chairman — the first time a woman was named the head of a U.S. broadcast network. That legacy continues today with Dana Walden, one of the most powerful execs in TV, who has run 20th Century Fox TV (with Gary Newman) since 1999, and the Fox Network since 2014.
But don’t start calling the Murdoch family “woke.” What must all of these empowered women think of how their company tiptoes around O’Reilly’s multiple allegations of sexual harassment?
It’s an inconvenient truth. According to the New York Times, at least five women were paid around $13 million to settle their complaints against O’Reilly over sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviors. Another woman has come forward in the wake of the article.
O’Reilly’s unfettered ascension is a discouraging message to 21st Century Fox employees. It says: “You may be valuable. But this guy is more valuable.”
Just last year, the brothers were lauded for responding swiftly following sexual harassment complaints against Fox News founder Roger Ailes, who left the company (along with a $40 million severance). This time, however, 21st Century Fox has been mum outside a very brief statement.
Here’s the difference: Roger Ailes built Fox News into a monster, so big that it was ultimately bigger than him. The Murdochs decided the brand could continue, without missing a beat, under protégés Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy, who now run the network.
On the flip side, Fox News is Bill O’Reilly. (And O’Reilly isn’t just a Fox News figure. His “Killing” series of books have also been turned into limited series for National Geographic Channel, which is operated by Fox Networks Group. “Killing Patton” remains in development there.)
“21st Century Fox takes matters of workplace behavior very seriously,” the company said in its statement. But it takes matters of profits more seriously, and “The O’Reilly Factor” made about $178 million in advertising revenue in 2015. Even more importantly, Fox News charges cable and satellite operators $1.41 per subscriber — more than any channel except ESPN. And they can do that because O’Reilly attracts more than 3.5 million viewers nightly.
The silence is deafening. With no action at all — at least NBC punished Brian Williams for his white lies — 21st Century Fox becomes complicit (there’s a word getting a lot of play these days) in O’Reilly’s alleged actions.
It’s time for the Murdochs to speak up.
21st Century Fox execs have long had to make peace with the contradictions inherent inside the Rupert Murdoch empire. On the west coast, Fox Broadcasting and 20th Century Fox TV have thrived by offering some of the most programming out there, pushing boundaries with series like “Modern Family,” “The Simpsons,” and “Glee.”
And yet, the inclusive messages on those shows – supporting issues such as gay rights and female empowerment – are exactly the kind of things that right-leaning Murdoch news outlets on the east coast like Fox News Channel and News Corp.’s New York Post might rail against.
Progressive producers at the company like Ryan Murphy’s and Seth MacFarlane’s must feel conflicted over how 21st Century Fox dances around the O’Reilly problem. Ditto talent like Sarah Paulson, who has become iconic for playing powerful female characters on shows produced and distributed by the conglom.
It’s not hard to find Fox execs in Los Angeles who roll their eyes at Fox News’ pro-Trump stance – chalking it up to the cost of business.
But the fact that a major star can be rewarded with a huge contract despite his (alleged) behavior against female colleagues? That’s not just business, that’s personal.
And no matter how many women are named to leadership positions, it’s a reminder that the workplace hasn’t really changed.