NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - It takes the exit of dozens of advertisers and numerous protests to force change at Twenty-First Century Fox, it seems. The company on Wednesday parted ways with top Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly in the wake of the criticism and lost ad dollars that followed a New York Times report cataloging sexual-harassment allegations he and Fox had settled. The U.S. cable channel’s chief architect, Roger Ailes, was booted amid a similar scandal nine months ago. The cleanup hardly comes across as whole-hearted.
Money, not morals, was the likely factor pushing Fox to cut ties with O’Reilly. Some 77 advertisers including Mercedes-Benz, Bayer and T. Rowe Price pulled their commercials from O’Reilly’s primetime show, according to Color of Change, an activist group that launched a petition to pressure companies to avoid advertising on the program.
O’Reilly is the network’s most watched star, pulling in a little under 4 million viewers each night. The high ratings brought in a conservatively estimated $120 million in advertising revenue last year, not counting the scads of special presidential election programming, iSpot.tv reckons. Fox News is worth about $14 billion, Breakingviews estimated last July, accounting for roughly a fifth of the Fox parent company's enterprise value, which hasn't changed much at around $70 billion.
That makes the channel – and O'Reilly – significant contributors, but Fox promised last July to overhaul the Ailes-led corporate culture that had turned a blind eye to unsavory behavior. The efforts to do so now seem timid at best. Rupert Murdoch, who controls Twenty-First Century Fox, appointed executives who worked under Ailes to run the network after he left.
And even though O’Reilly and the company had paid out some $13 million to settle claims over the years, according to the New York Times, the network still renewed his multimillion-dollar contract recently.
Rather than take the initiative, it took an investigative report published by Fox's media rival, followed by boycotts and consumer activism, to finally persuade the network to sever links with O’Reilly, who has worked there for more than 20 years. Although Murdoch's sons, James and Lachlan, may bring greater sensitivity and a more risk-averse style to the mix, the old Fox is plainly changing only slowly.