For the first time in nearly 15 years, Fox News could be on the edge of losing its dominance in the cable news wars. On Monday, the embattled network dropped to last place, behind both MSNBC and CNN in the primetime 25-54 age bracket, the one most coveted by advertisers. In total primetime viewers, Fox handily beat CNN but lost by a hair to MSNBC.
Other than beating CNN in the primetime demo, pretty much the same thing happened Friday. The left-wing MSNBC bludgeoned Fox with 503,000 demo viewers compared to just 371,000.
While it is fair to argue to wait and see how things shake out, it is also fair to draw a straight line from the firing of Bill O'Reilly and a Fox News that, for the first time in more than a decade, looks vulnerable.
Whatever you might think of O'Reilly, by firing him Fox broke the First Rule of Scandals, which goes something like this… If you are a big corporation that relies heavily on public goodwill, you leave it up to the customers to render the verdict on a scandal, or you risk an existential crisis against your brand.
In this case, the scandal involved a number of disputed allegations of sexual harassment against O'Reilly, allegations that involved millions paid out in settlements. At the height of the scandal, O'Reilly's ratings shot up. In the days leading up to his termination, and even though O'Reilly was on vacation, The Factor held on to its audience, the highest in all of cable news.
Choosing to ignore this glaringly obvious public verdict, James and Lachlan Murdoch dropped the hammer on O'Reilly. There are reports that the left-leaning Murdochs are embarrassed by Fox News (probably at cocktail parties) and therefore eager to change the network's political culture. If that's the case, the firing makes sense. But if the Brothers Murdoch are at all interested in being, you know, a success, the firing could hobble the long-time cable news leader for years to come.
You see, if you don’t let the public render the verdict on a scandal, either way you risk a backlash. After 21 successful years hosting The Factor, combined with a steady stream of popular historical novels, O'Reilly had become an American institution with a loyal audience in the millions, an audience who not only made O'Reilly the King of Cable News, but stuck around to boost the ratings of the rest of the network's primetime line-up.
They liked Fox News. But now that their guy has been sacrificed in a world where serial-liar Brian Williams and serial-plagiarist Fareed Zakaria still have jobs; where accused rapist and serial-sexual harasser Bill Clinton is idolized, not so much.
The termination of O'Reilly over allegations that his millions of viewers did not believe, rose to the level of a firing offense, was probably seen by many as a personal slap in the face, an insult to their own judgment, and a change in direction that they perceive (correctly) as a mixture of cowardly caving to their enemies in the MSM and an unacceptable move leftward.
So far, by the looks of it, firing O'Reilly will bring only downside for Fox News and not just in O'Reilly's long-held timeslot. This move has damaged the overall Fox News brand with the people it needs most — its core audience of loyal viewers. And if the Murdoch brothers believe they can appease the Left by doing anything other than turning Fox News into another left-wing propaganda ministry like CNN, they are in for a nasty surprise.
The public stood by their guy.
Fox News slapped that public in the face.
There is a reason why that rule is the First Rule.