Fox News won’t confirm O’Reilly’s return

Fox News spokespeople on Tuesday declined to respond to questions about whether Bill O’Reilly, the longtime face of the network who is now confronting a sexual harassment scandal, would return to his show after his vacation ends on Monday.

It was a notable change from earlier this month, when the network insisted that O’Reilly was simply on a long-planned vacation and that he would be returning next Monday. And it came amid reports that the network was preparing to part ways with its longtime 8 p.m. host.

For two weeks, O’Reilly’s show has been the subject of a boycott by advertisers responding to a New York Times report that Fox News had paid settlements to five women who accused the anchor of sexual harassment.

O’Reilly has denied the incidents, saying only that celebrities are fat targets for such allegations.

On Tuesday night, The Wall Street Journal – which shares an owner with Fox News – reported that the network was preparing to cut ties with O’Reilly. CNN reported that the two sides were in talks for a separation, while New York Magazine reported that the Murdochs, the family which owns Fox News, were leaning toward announcing that O’Reilly will not return to the air.

In a statement on Tuesday evening a lawyer for O’Reilly, Marc E. Kasowitz said: “Bill O’Reilly has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America. This law firm has uncovered evidence that the smear campaign is being orchestrated by far-left organizations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons. That evidence will be put forth shortly, and it is irrefutable.”

Kasowitz is the same lawyer who defended then-candidate Donald Trump against allegations of sexist treatment of women in another Times article.

Nonetheless, advertisers no longer seem willing to support O’Reilly’s highly rated show. In the past few days some advertising blocs only had one or two commercials, uncommonly short for a primetime show. By some account half of O’Reilly’s advertisers have left the program, with at least 11 companies confirming to reporters that they had either pulled ads or planned to shift upcoming ads to other Fox News programs. Great ratings are one thing, but without commercials the ratings become “empty calories” in television parlance.

Organized protests by groups like Color of Change and Ultra Violet have also rattled the network. On Tuesday Color of Change protested outside of Fox News headquarters in New York City, handing out leaflets with O’Reilly’s image warning that a “sexual predator works here”. A plane flew a banner over New York City that read "Fox: #DropOReilly, The Sexual Predator" in the hours leading up to the protest.

Later this week, Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James will preside over a board meeting where the subject of O’Reilly’s future – should it remain unresolved — will likely be a major topic. A 21st Century Fox spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the board meeting.

O’Reilly had already cut back on his hosting duties. Since November’s election, O’Reilly has only been hosting four out of the five weekdays, leaving all but two Fridays to a rotating cabal of guest hosts. A new Friday-night spinoff of O’Reilly’s show called “Friday Factor” had been planned but not yet announced, with a rotating group of hosts filling his Friday slot.

O’Reilly would be the latest in a string of high-profile departures for the network, including top anchor Megyn Kelly who left for NBC in January, and Greta Van Susteren who joined MSNBC not long after. Those departures followed that of the network’s longtime chief, Roger Ailes, also amid sexual harassment allegations.

O’Reilly is one of the Fox News originals, having joined the network in 1996 as Ailes was launching it. He’s been one of the network’s — and cable news world’s — most popular stars ever since.

But he’s frequently been dogged by controversies. Some of the settlements of sexual harassment complaints cited in the Times report, such as a 2004 case involving a former producer for O’Reilly, were well known. Others were new revelations. And since the Times’ report, at least two other women have come forward with further allegations, and Fox has hired the same outside counsel they used to investigate Ailes to investigate the allegations against O’Reilly.

Internally Fox News is buzzing. Though Ailes’ departure came as a shock, O’Reilly’s departure would open up important new real estate in the primetime lineup, meaning big promotions could be in store for some talent. Tucker Carlson, who recently took over Kelly’s 9 p.m. time slot to great ratings success could likely take O’Reilly’s 8 p.m. slot. Sean Hannity could be moved to 9 p.m. and then a new show could be tested at 10 p.m.

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