In fifteen years, when the paleontology of the Cable Age is complete, the ouster of O’Reilly rex from his 8 p.m. slot in the news business will feel like a footnote. Yes, he was the most powerful of the dinosaurs who roamed through the living rooms of America. Yes, he made ungodly money for a network that tolerated his outrageously predatory behavior.
But the meteor was coming for him anyway.
All the stories about Bill O’Reilly’s exit point to a generational and political shift at the top of Fox. Everyone agrees this was most likely the call of James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s 44-year-old successor. “It’s James Murdoch’s Fox News Now,” read the headline of longtime Murdoch-watcher Michael Wolff in his column in the Hollywood Reporter last week. The New York Times explained it as James’s “elaborate overhaul.”
The conventional wisdom says that James is a liberal (or at least far more so than his father) — and his wife, Kathryn, is even more liberal — and he wants to move Fox News to a more respectable middle lane of politics. Ergo, he’s happy to kill The O’Reilly Factor despite its high ratings. Another thread in that wisdom says that James is a Davos-era CEO, personally shocked by Fox News’s culture, which gave rise to the Roger Ailes and O’Reilly scandals. Either way the basic idea is that James Murdoch was so moved by the revelations of O’Reilly’s serial harassment that he had to put his foot down, profits be damned.
Indeed, at the moment the profits The O’Reilly Factor generates are probably substantial; his four-million-viewer audience is twice what Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s most viewed host, brings to her network.
James, though, doesn’t seem to be thinking much at all about those four million viewers. Detractors would say he doesn’t care much about Fox News, has buckled under pressure there and let the network’s top talent out the door. Just how vigorously did James’s Fox News try to keep rising star Megyn Kelly? How shocked could James have been by the news in the New York Times that Fox had paid out millions in settlements on O’Reilly’s behalf, and how did he sign the deal that now pays out O’Reilly as much as $25 million?
James Murdoch’s admirers, and many in the C-suites of other media companies, likely see him playing the long game. And in the long view, Fox News dominates a market that is about to go off a cliff.
When Roger Ailes founded Fox News with Rupert Murdoch, the basic principle they grasped was the raw power of television to become the intimate political adviser to millions, right inside their living rooms. The reigning wisdom among the future-is-now CEO types James hangs around with is that cable news is basically a dead letter.
James, who is reportedly building his own off-the-grid survival compound in Canada and is a great friend of Elon Musk, is obviously a fan of the long game. And like many who would be visionary leaders of global corporations, he sees himself not as a caretaker but as something much bigger. For people invested in the long game in media, cable news — with its linear, watch-it-now-or-you’ll-miss-it distribution model and its reliance on carriage deals with ancient cable companies — is maladapted to the next epoch. The only hope for them is to attach their brand names to the new distribution models of the information age, so that there is a business to continue when the old audience, who could be counted on to slip a thumb into the familiar groove of channel 44 on the remote, melts away.
Much of the energy that once went to Fox, James seems to be pouring into National Geographic. Yes, that’s the yellow-bordered magazine with all the pictures and maps. It’s also a cable channel and a documentary powerhouse, and a global brand. Though National Geographic struggled along with the rest of the media, it has three things going for it that are like ambrosia to a modern media mogul: a paying, global audience; a product that can work across television, streaming video, print, and even big-budget movies; and a message that seems immune to political and social differences among viewers.
Sleepy old National Geographic is now Instagram’s most followed account not attached to a celebrity. Murdoch and the leadership at National Geographic have had Leonardo DiCaprio make them a documentary. They recruited Ron Howard and Brian Grazer for a $20 million miniseries about Mars, with tie-ins to books and digital spin-offs. Reportedly in the works is a collaboration with Steven Spielberg.
Meanwhile, at Fox News, the jewel in the crown, there have been better benefits, protections for trans employees, and (long overdue) changes in workplace culture. All good. But there is no big realignment as you see periodically at other cable networks, no highly publicized effort at a digital-first network, no major new developments in streaming or nonlinear TV.
The outsize influence of Fox News on the Republican electorate, and on the cable news–obsessed president, obscures that it is already a fading property. Fox has not even made much effort to get marquee names to fill its newly empty chairs. O’Reilly’s spot will be taken by Tucker Carlson, hired months before O’Reilly was jettisoned, not a net gain for the network. Tellingly, there is no replacement for Kelly, the anchor who in the old regime was supposed to be the network’s chief hope of attracting younger viewers into the next decade — if, that is, young viewers will be watching cable news in the next decade at all.
To that last question, James Murdoch’s answer seems to be “I don’t think so.” No, he isn’t planning to take Fox to the center (unless he can be sure to take the audience with him), nor does he seem to be gearing up to innovate the hell out of it. The pace of change there will likely pick up over the next few months — the network’s bête noire, journalist and Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman, tweeted Monday that at least two more lawsuits were likely to come to light this week.
The kind of change we’re seeing at Fox News, however, will continue to be reactive. If the past is any indication, the changes will be ones that remove troublesome elements and heal the wound quickly and efficiently. If that continues, Fox will diminish, slowly, as James tries to extract whatever profit he can while building up the parts of 21st Century Fox in which he has more faith.
There can be little doubt the recent New York Times coverage of his sexual harassment settlements was the reason O’Reilly lost his gig, and no doubt that the toxic newsroom culture he and his former mentor Ailes exemplified is fading to black. But so is the whole television business that was so new and full of possibility to Murdoch père and Ailes.