Can Fox stay on top without Ailes and O’Reilly?

Since its founding in 1996, Fox News’ brain has been Roger Ailes and its voice has been Bill O’Reilly.

Fox News now seems entirely comfortable proceeding without them.

Together, the two men defined the Fox demographic and channeled its anger at the way the country was changing and the liberal assault on the values represented by the title of O’Reilly’s latest bestseller: “Old School.”

Now, Ailes and O’Reilly are gone, each accused by multiple women of various forms of harassment. And the network they built into a ratings behemoth is left to ponder their legacy, and whether their absence is likely to reduce the dominance of cable news’ ratings leader.

Fox News is clearly betting that it won’t matter, filling its nightly lineup with familiar faces – Tucker Carlson, Dana Perino, Jesse Watters.

It’s a risk, but analysts tend to believe the network is right: Fox News is now such a strong brand that neither Ailes nor O’Reilly are needed to keep it going. And while its audience is aging – the oldest in the geriatric world of cable news – the power of the Fox demographic was just demonstrated in last year’s elections.

O’Reilly, whose “O’Reilly Factor” attracted an average of three million viewers per night, is an undeniable star in his realm, but it’s unlikely that his departure in itself could bring the network down from its dominating place, most observers believe.

"Fox has built powerful a platform that is the go to place for people with a certain world view and so to some degree it doesn’t matter who is on,” said Brian Wieser a senior analyst of advertising, media, and Internet at Pivotal Research Group LLC. "

Indeed, for those viewers who can’t stand the “mainstream media” it’s one of the only places they can go that isn’t, for example, running a constant drumbeat into alleged Russian connections of President Donald Trump or dysfunction in his White House.

Meanwhile, the network has seen big stars leave before. Just in the past year Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and Greta Van Susteren all left the network — and yet Fox News’ first quarter of 2017 was the highest rated of any cable network in history.

O’Reilly’s departure will likely have even less effect than those of the others on internal morale, because he isn’t particularly popular with his colleagues. Some network insiders said he treats people gruffly, and compared him unfavorably to fellow network star Sean Hannity.

“O’Reilly never commanded the type of respect internally as a news man, he just had a highly rated show,” one Fox Insider said.

People inside the network appear to be pleased that O’Reilly won’t be replaced by a big-name outsider. The decision to hand over O’Reilly’s fabled 8 p.m. timeslot to Tucker Carlson seemed to be something of a no-brainer, given his ratings success in the hour after O’Reilly’s show.

In recent years, Fox has had success turning to its internal bench to fill holes. When Glenn Beck left in 2011 he was replaced by “The Five,” a panel-style show with six hosts – including Watters, Perino, and Kim Guilfoyle – that is now moving to 9 p.m. When Van Susteren left last year she was replaced by Carlson.

"Tucker’s show demonstrated the power of the platform that you could put almost anyone on with sufficiently conservative views and, in the current environment, they would do reasonably well in absolute terms,” Wieser said. "You have to assume there will be some degree to which O’Reilly would outperform a generic talking head. But if you assume O’Reilly accounts for, say, 10 percent of Fox News viewing, if you lost a couple percentage points of that cumulative viewing you wouldn’t notice it in a news category where it’s growing by 20 percent and Fox News is growing at that rate. "

Some inside the network believe that Carlson’s ability to produce viral segments and create buzz would provide a good lead-in to the rest of the Fox evening lineup.

Hannity, whose die-hard support for President Donald Trump provides an important bridge to his supporters, is staying in his regular 10 p.m. time slot.

“The Five” includes two women among the six co-hosts, which would partly make up for the absence of high-profile women hosts after the departures of Kelly and Van Susteren and help the network’s image in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations. It also includes a rotating spot for a resident “liberal” voice, represented by Bob Beckel and Juan Williams.

“The Five” has already had runs outside of its 5 p.m. time slot. “The Five” was actually the fill in for O’Reilly on a Friday night last month, and was the highest rated show on cable news that evening.

O’Reilly had not regularly hosted on Friday nights since at least the election.

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