Fox's right arm

Apr 20, 2017 By Steven R. Peck

For the channel to fire Bill O'Reilly, the irascible host must have afforded no choice

Even after 20 years on the job, Bill O'Reilly remained just about the biggest star of cable television "news."

Like O'Reilly or dislike him, but understand this: His show was great TV for its type. The most important part of the show was not the news, the pictures, or the guests. It was Bill O'Reilly. He borrowed successful aspects of late-night talk shows and molded them into something new. Jon Stewart might or might not acknowledge it, but his very funny "Daily Show" -- the opposite of O'Reilly's in point of view -- was a descendant of "The O'Reilly Factor" nonetheless. The same goes for Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, and any number of other host/commentators who now define the prime-time cable news experience.

O'Reilly made the show about himself, and he had the personality, the aptitude and the sensibility to make it work.

Once upon a time, David Letterman invited the gruff radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh onto Letterman's old "Late Show." Letterman made mincemeat of Limbaugh, who couldn't function very well outside his own studio.

Not long after, O'Reilly came on. Different story that night. He jabbed and parried skillfully and calmly with Letterman. While the Limbaugh bashers might have enjoyed what Letterman did to Limbaugh, alone in the bathroom the next morning they would have had to admit that the O'Reilly segment was better TV.

The point is, the guy was great at his job, and he was successful. He could claim to have built the Fox News brand more than anyone else. In a story coming in this Sunday's edition, a national reporter notes that O'Reilly's program drew $172 million in advertising to the channel in an average year. And, since the election of the new president, his audience was bigger than it had ever been. Remarkable after so long on the job. Further, in the furor of ultra-politicized cable news, O'Reilly actually had become something of a mainstream figure on Fox compared to some of the other screamers.

And yet Fox fired him on Wednesday. Think about that. The biggest, best, most-famous, most-watched, most rain-making host on the channel, and he was fired.

If you are still wondering whether the allegations of workplace harassment against O'Reilly are true, stop thinking. An outside, independent investigator looked into the situation and reported back to the Murdoch family, owners of Fox News. The termination followed shortly afterward. His report must have been pretty bad. At the very least it must have portrayed a scenario that would not go away, and one in which Fox could not prevail.

For Fox to have decided it was better to fire Bill O'Reilly than defend him, there had to be something to the accusations. It's like agreeing to have your right arm amputated. You'll only do it if there's no other choice.

The man had his devoted throngs and his dedicated detractors. That's just the way he wanted it, and for 20 years that's just the way he had it. Perhaps he'll weather this storm and emerge on TV again. If not, then Bill O'Reilly had a great run and will be remembered as a true TV groundbreaker -- politics aside.

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