The business case for Fox News dropping Bill O’Reilly wasn’t his actions, it was his age

From generation to generation.
From generation to generation.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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For all of Bill O’Reilly’s problems at Fox News, the one that has garnered the least attention is probably the one most responsible for his dismissal: His audience is dying.

According to CNN, the average age of viewers of The O’Reilly Factor was 72. The average life expectancy for males in the US is 78, meaning the average O’Reilly viewer will die off about halfway through US president Donald Trump’s second term.

Of course, that average viewer doesn’t really exist, and Trump hasn’t been re-elected yet, but the point holds: Fox News, which has graced America and cable television with its presence since 1996, is battling an extinction problem.

The network’s 21 years of conservative empire-building was largely helmed by Roger Ailes, until Ailes left under his own cloud last year. Ailes and O’Reilly were late in middle age when they started their long, strange trip into red-state living rooms across America on Rupert Murdoch’s cloud of dreams. Now they are 76 and 67, respectively, and gone from the payroll.

Fox has not thrived because its viewers casually tune in—it persists because it reliably throws its captive audience red meat throughout the day. It’s not pretty what happens when the lion tamer loses a step, though. It’s not something you want to broadcast on live TV. The choice then for the Murdochs—Rupert and his sons, James and Lachlan—is to send out the old guard while they are on top.

The word was that Rupert, no spring chicken himself at 86, fought for O’Reilly to the last. But business considerations, like the pending management fitness review of his proposed merger with SkyTV in the UK, eventually outmatched all feints to loyalty.

From the outside looking in, the sexual harassment scandals facing O’Reilly, and Ailes before him, looked to be the kind of thing that could blow a conventional company apart. But Fox has never been conventional. As has become clear from years of dogged reporting by journalists Gabriel Sherman, Sarah Ellison, Emily Steel, and others, something is rotten in the state of Denmark—and has been for years. Nothing about the way Rupert Murdoch has ever operated suggests he is interested in overpaying celebrities of his own creation to work through their declining years, while putting his business interests at risk. He has shown us who he is over and over, and we should, as the saying goes, believe him.

The sexual harassment accusations against O’Reilly then, were not truly damning. They were not what sent him to the glue factory. They were simply the catalyst for closing a deal long in the making.

And it turned out that a new deal for Fox News was more or less waiting in the wings. It may have been nothing more than coincidence, but after the Murdochs hired Tucker Carlson to follow O’Reilly’s 8pm show, his hour became a surprise hit. Indeed, Carlson began to outdraw Megyn Kelly, whom he had replaced only in November. This probably thrilled the Murdochs, who were offering Kelly $100 million to stay when she decamped for NBC. So not only did the Murdochs luck out in not having to pay up that kind of money for her, they found the perfect host-in-waiting to replace an old white man: a slightly less-old white man.

Bill O'Reilly attends the 2015 TIME 100 Gala cocktail reception, to celebrate the 100 most influential people in the world, at the Frederick P. Rose Hall, Time Warner Center on Tuesday, April 21, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision/AP)
Party’s over.
Image: Amy Sussman/Invision/AP

As 44-year-old James and 45-year-old Lachlan laid out the pieces to peré Rupert, they must’ve known that the old man would soon see the logic—the genius even—of the plan. He would make his peace and go along—lead the charge, even—to leave behind American baby boomers who must, by now, be holding their last US presidency in Trump, and turn Fox News over to Gen X.

Carlson, 47, takes over The Factor, or whatever the show will be called, tomorrow, April 24. He will say reliably sexist and xenophobic things, but wryly, with a Cheshire-cat smile. He will chuckle about crazy liberals. He will see segments of his show bookended by lucrative advertising—yes, the advertisers who left O’Reilly will quietly come trickling back to Carlson, especially as the audience gets younger, back into sportscar-buying territory. For at least a few years, he will not make anywhere near O’Reilly’s reported $25 million yearly salary, saving the Murdochs some very real money. (Especially against the $85 million Fox has paid out in harassment claim settlements—$65 million of which went to O’Reilly and Ailes.)

Eventually the small part of the world that cared about O’Reilly in the first place will forget about him, except when he comes on Carlson’s show in the future to plug his next book, which will probably be about the killing of someone or something, perhaps a president or a general or a television journalist or two. A warm glow will envelope him when that day comes. He will respond with graciousness. Very much unlike the way he has been accused of treating people over whom he had authority. Very much unlike the way he allegedly expressed his sexual desires to those around him in the workplace.

But what the Murdochs mainly succeeded in doing this week was to be sure those O’Reilly viewers do not forget about Fox. Maybe a younger generation that remembers Carlson from his Crossfire days on CNN will finally come home to Fox to watch him. A conservative, yes, they will think, but a levelheaded, open-minded one, not knee-jerk like a liberal, and oh, finally, someone else who is sick of all this political correctness and calls it like he sees it. He makes good points, they will think. And maybe I should be putting my money into gold, at least some of it, they think. After all, who knows what direction this crazy world is going in anymore.