For air talent reading this post, here's a little benchmark trivia bit you can play on your show today:
What well-known media celebrity once said this:
“Public misbehavior by the famous is a powerful teaching tool.”
While you ponder that, let's have a frank conversation about the ouster of Bill O'Reilly yesterday by Fox News. As expected, the Internet lit up in predictable fashion when O'Reilly's firing became a “BREAKING NEWS” story.
And Morning Show Boot Camp maven, Don Anthony, saw this high-profile firing of one of mass media's most successful celebrities as a teaching moment – or at least an opportunity to hear from many of radio's rank and file talent, most of whom rendered an opinion. There's no one in radio more invested for more years in radio than Don, and he clearly grasped that reporting on this story required more than the perfunctory “Bill O'Reilly exited Fox News today” treatment.
After all, this is a huge media story. When the face of a hugely successful TV network is shown the door – think Dan Rather or Brian Williams – it's a juicy topic. And we're not talking about someone who was anywhere near over the hill. O'Reilly continued to lead Fox News in ratings and was a successful author and speaker. But as the stories of sexual misconduct spilled out and were amplified by the rest of the media, it became untenable for Fox News to keep him around.
Of course, the other piece of this cautionary media tale is advertiser blowback and the taint of having the highest-profile talent on the network allegedly involved in myriad sexual imbroglios. The O'Reilly backlash that led to many cancellations no doubt played a role in this decision by Fox News, and its owners, the Murdoch family. Whether you're in Fayetteville, Philly, or at Fox News, losing booked ad revenue is never a pleasant state of affairs.
For those of you on the air gleefully celebrating the demise of “The O'Reilly Factor” or those of you convinced he was a victim of a PC-crazed society, don't miss the larger point.
I once worked for a GM who strongly believed in the axiom, “No one is bigger than the radio station.”
I initially had trouble getting my head around that management philosophy, especially with a brand built around superstar talent – clearly, my favorite kind of place to program. We can all think of stations we know or worked for where a dominant DJ or show clearly seemed bigger than the radio station, outflanking even the GM in salary, bonuses, and perks.
But when a jock, a morning show, a news anchor, or a talk show host consistently jeopardizes the mother ship, either by flirting with the FCC, losing advertising revenue, or just acting like an ass, it's time for management to step up and make a move.
It's also a lesson for ownership about just how much they're willing to put up with – good ratings or not. It was reported that Fox News paid out roughly $13 million over the years to buy off and silence alleged sexual harassment allegations. Many female staffers at Fox News reportedly were upset about the environment and culture of the company.
So, a momentous decision like this one by Fox News is, in fact, a teaching tool. There are many lessons here about morals, arrogance, power, and fairness. But in his exit statement, O'Reilly indicated he may not have learned a lot from these events. Here's his key line:
“It is tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims. But that is the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today.”
Victim or victimizer? We may never know for sure, but Fox News now has the opportunity to recast its image in the wake of this firing, as well as the exit of Roger Ailes earlier this year. Tucker Carlson, who will replace O'Reilly, may never recapture OReilly's lost ratings or revenue, but the move provides the network with a chance to redefine the way it does business, on and off the air.
Hopefully, for you and your staff, the dispatch of Bill O'Reilly can serve as a teaching moment – a conversation starter for HR, programming, and management to review the company's standards, and to remind all parties involved precisely where the foul lines are drawn.
By the way, that quote that started this post? It was coined by none other than Bill O'Reilly.
And as a reminder that talent is talent, whether it's small market radio or the glitz of cable news, O'Reilly was fired while on vacation. On the same day he was let go, he shook hands with Pope Francis in the Vatican.
No one is bigger than the cable network.
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