With Bill O’Reilly on Vacation, Advertisers Still Avoid Fox News’ ‘Factor’

Bill O'Reilly Scandal

Bill O’Reilly’s break from appearing on Fox News’ primetime schedule doesn’t seem to be enough to get advertisers to return.

Fox News Channel has broadcast two episodes of its highly rated “The O’Reilly Factor” with a substitute host at the helm, but much of Madison Avenue is still avoiding the program, as it has since early last week. On Tuesday,  O’Reilly said he would take a planned vacation, even as a controversy swirled related to the disclosure that he has paid $13 million in settlements to five women who accused him of sexual harassment and other in appropriate behavior.

His absence has not made advertisers hearts grow fonder. Even with Dana Perino hosting “Factor” on Wednesday and Eric Bolling leading the program on Thursday, the show has featured approximately 10 national commercials each night. In the month prior to the disclosure of the settlements, O’Reilly’s program carried an average of 33 national ads totaling more than 14 minutes, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending.

O’Reilly is scheduled to return to his anchor seat, his “Talking Points Memo” segment and his regular interviews with contributors like Jesse Watters and Charles Krauthammer April 24.

Meantime, Fox News Channel and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, await the results of an internal investigation into allegations made against him. In an earlier statement, O’Reilly said said he entered into settlements to protect his children, and suggested his fame made him a target.

Most advertisers have moved their commercials away from the program, but continue to keep their money with Fox News Channel, the network said in a statement earlier this month. A Fox News spokesperson declined to elaborate beyond that statement.

One media buyer suggested sponsors may find it hard to ditch O’Reilly’s “Factor” permanently. Simply put, the program is typically the most-watched on cable news, luring between 3 million and 4 million people each night. At a time when TV audiences are eroding because of the lure of mobile devices and streaming video, that chunk of viewership is difficult to dismiss, this buyer noted.

In his last, pre-vacation days, O’Reilly continued to win more viewers than others. Between April 3 and April 11, his show attracted an average of 647,000 viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic coveted most by advertisers in news programming – 11% more than the year-earlier period, according to Nielsen. The show lured an average of more than 3.69 million viewers overall. Some of the viewership no doubt tuned in to see if the anchor would say anything about the controversy surrounding him. O’Reilly has not addressed the issue on the air.

In contrast, Perino’s Wednesday-night broadcast won an average of 521,000 viewers between 25 and 54, and more than 2.8 million viewers overall.

Some of the Madison Avenue scatter from O’Reilly’s show may be more for show than for real. The advertisers appear to be using a tactic that is common when Madison Avenue wishes to avoid negative publicity associated with a particular program, but in fact likes the results derived from advertising on the network that shows it. Marketers’ decision to keep money at Fox News suggests some of them may be waiting to see if a return is possible.

Even so, those defections ought to be taken seriously. In mid-2015, marketers including General Mills, Yum Brands’ Pizza Hut, PepsiCo’s Pure Leaf Iced Tea, Choice Hotels and Crayola LLC all publicly stated they had removed their commercials from “19 Kids and Counting,” a TLC reality show that spotlighted the Duggar family, in light of news that the oldest boy in the family had sexually assaulted teenage girls. But none of the sponsors pulled their ad dollars previously earmarked for TLC or other properties owned by its parent, Discovery Communications. The show was eventually canceled.

Fox News may have a cushion. The biggest sponsors of “Factor” are direct-response marketers like Rosland Capital and MyPillow.com -and they have continued to support the show. Direct-response marketers typically pay less to run commercials in exchange for letting the network place their ads across a broad section of the schedule – and are typically less concerned about content than mainstream advertisers.  In recent nights, “Factor” ad support has been provided largely by these kinds of sponsors, including spots from PCMatic, RockAuto.com and Fast Life. On Thursday night, Great America Alliance, an advocacy group that supports President Trump’s political agenda, ran a commercial.

Another party has used “O’Reilly Factor” for humorous purposes. On Wednesday night, viewers of the program on Cablevision might have noticed an off-kilter pitch. In the spot, a cowboy speaks up against “repeated unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks in the workplace.” The ad ran during time allocated to local cable systems, and was actually a prank commercial devised by the staff at John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.”

A network can keep any series on the air it chooses – if it has the willpower. In 2008, a handful of sponsors pulled out of “Swingtown,” a CBS drama that examined spouse-swapping in the 1970s, among its other elements. The network filled its advertising holes with direct-response ads for Time-Life 1970s music compilations, and soldiered on. Until O’Reilly’s fate is more clear, Fox News, for now, seems likely to do the same.