Rupert Murdoch told staffers Thursday that he was pleased with performance at both Fox News Channel and its sister operation, Fox Business Network, even as a controversy continues to rage around one of the unit’s most recognizable anchors, Bill O’Reilly.
“As we enter this new spring season, I’d like to take the opportunity to wish those celebrating, a wonderful Passover and Easter holiday. The first few months of this year have already given us much to be thankful for,” said Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox and chairman of Fox News, said in a memo distributed Thursday. “Fox News just delivered its highest-rated quarter ever and remains number one in cable in both prime time and total day, while Fox Business has surpassed CNBC as the number one business channel on television. I am tremendously proud of our entire team and truly grateful for the hard work everyone has contributed to ensure our continued future success.”
Murdoch made no mention of O’Reilly or the contretemps surrounding the anchor. O’Reilly has taken a vacation from his venerable Fox News Channel program, “The O’Reilly Factor,” as the parent company awaits the results of an investigation into an accusation of sexual harassment that has been levied at the anchor. In the wake of an April 1 New York Times report revealing settlements by O’Reilly with five women who complained about sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior, dozens of advertisers have moved their commercials away from his program. A roster of substitute hosts are appearing in O’Reilly’s stead. Dana Perino anchored O’Reilly’s hour Wednesday night, which was largely sponsored by a handful of direct-response advertisers.
In a previous statement, O’Reilly said he entered into settlements to protect his children, and suggested his fame made him a target. He is currently scheduled to return to Fox News’ air on April 24.
The executive’s memo puts a spotlight on the unique situation in which 21st Century Fox finds itself. Its Fox News unit has seen ratings growth in the months following the election of President Donald Trump. But the O’Reilly controversy, much like the one surrounding Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chief who was ousted last year in the wake of sexual-harassment allegations, suggests the news organization still has unsavory elements in its internal culture that need to be eliminated.
The network is also contending with a lawsuit alleging racist behavior by an executive that Fox News said has been fired, as well as a potential probe by U.S. government attorneys looking into payments made by the network and its parent to women who claimed to have been harassed by Ailes. Ailes has denied all charges made against him. In February, 21st Century Fox acknowledged in a statement that it had “been in communication with the U.S. attorney’s office for months,” and also said at the time that it “will continue to cooperate on all inquiries with any interested authorities.”
And yet, Fox News viewership has spiked – up 30% among adults 25-54, the demographic most coveted by advertisers, in the first quarter. Executives earlier this year navigated a crucial hand-off between former 9 p.m. anchor Megyn Kelly and her replacement, Tucker Carlson, who was accepted by viewers quickly after taking her seat. Sean Hannity’s presence in the news cycle as a die-hard follower of President Donald Trump has intensified. And news side figures like Chris Wallace, Shepard Smith and Bret Baier have gained recognition for calling balls and strikes on critical news events.
Murdoch made a similar pronouncement about Fox News in July, after Ailes had departed. “There’s no doubt this has been a challenging time – amid the conventions and multitude of domestic and international breaking news stories, we had to face being the news last week as well,” he said in a memo to staff at the time. “Despite the extraordinary circumstances, we never compromised our dedication to the viewers and everyone’s professionalism was on display throughout.” The company also ran print ads touting ratings performance at both Fox News during pre-election coverage.