NEW YORK — Fox News Channel expects Bill O’Reilly back from his vacation on April 24, ready to resume his position as cable television news’ most popular host.
But given advertiser defections and the swirl of stories about payouts totalling $13 million to five women to keep harassment allegations quiet, it’s impossible to dismiss the idea that Papa Bear may lose his television home for the past two decades. Fox News without Roger Ailes once seemed unthinkable, too, until the network chief’s downfall following sexual harassment charges last summer.
Replacing the host who came to define the network would be no easy task. While Megyn Kelly wasn’t as popular as O’Reilly, her departure for NBC in January is instructive. Tucker Carlson took over her 9 p.m. time slot and increased the ratings, evidence that Fox viewers are Fox viewers — loyal to the network and its ethos as much, if not more, than individual personalities. For that reason, it’s a virtual certainty that whoever takes over O’Reilly’s time slot will be somebody Fox viewers already know.
Don’t dismiss the idea that Fox could do some shuffling to avoid giving someone the pressure of being “O’Reilly’s replacement.” Carlson could move an hour earlier. Sean Hannity has a loyal audience that might appreciate an earlier starting time, too.
With that in mind, here are some on Fox’s bench.
President George W. Bush’s last White House press secretary is clearly on the ascent at Fox, and was given the leadoff role Wednesday as the first substitute on “The O’Reilly Factor” after O’Reilly left for vacation. Executives will be watching the performance of his subs closely, along with their ratings.
Perino is one of the panelists on the late afternoon show “The Five,” and lately has received several opportunities to shine on her own. She filled in for Martha MacCallum last week on the network’s 7 p.m. show about President Trump’s first 100 days. She had a midafternoon hosting slot on Thursday, and recently interviewed House Speaker Paul Ryan — an indication she’s seen as more than a pundit. An article in the Business Insider this week said Perino was “emerging as a go-to host” for Fox.
This would also give Fox the chance to name a woman to the prime-time lineup, no small consideration at a time the network has faced steady criticism for how women are treated in their workplace.
This former Pittsburgh Pirates draftee and panelist on “The Five” has been a frequent substitute for O’Reilly in the past few years as he’s heightened his profile on Fox News Channel. Formerly at CNBC, he moved to Fox Business Network and then to the news channel.
He’s got a book coming out this summer: “The Swamp: Washington’s Murky Pool of Corruption and Cronyism and How Trump Can Drain It.”
There’s no question he’s an enthusiastic cheerleader for President Trump, and will appeal to the majority of Fox’s audience politically. Bolling tweeted recently that “the border wall will be built and it’s going to be beautiful.” He declared on one recent episode of “The Five” that “let me phrase it this way: 2,920 days to diminish America’s standing on the world stage, 77 days President Trump got it right back to where it should be.” Trump fans — and likely Trump himself — would be happy to see him rewarded.
This 38-year-old O’Reilly protege would no doubt be the most controversial choice among Fox’s critics. He joined Fox News as a production assistant in 2002 and began working on O’Reilly a year later, eventually given an on-air role. He’s often O’Reilly’s designated hit man, going out on “ambush” interviews to confront people whose views the host has judged questionable.
His “Watters World” man-in-the-street interviews feature him with a bemused smile, comic pieces where liberal orthodoxy is frequently the target of jokes. His segments are so popular with O’Reilly’s viewers that he was given his own Saturday night show in 2015, and last month he interviewed President Trump.
One of his interview segments backfired badly last year when he questioned people in New York’s Chinatown, asking questions that the Asian-American Journalists Association said were “rife with racist stereotypes.”
She has the most serious news chops of this bunch. She moved into one of Kelly’s roles at Fox after Kelly left for NBC News, co-hosting the network’s coverage of Trump’s inauguration with Bret Baier. She joined Fox News in 2004 and has been active in the network’s coverage of presidential campaigns.
Carlson’s path at Fox — moving from the 7 p.m. slot to 9 p.m. to replace Kelly — means MacCallum must be considered part of the mix if a time slot later in prime time opened up. Given the chance at her own prime-time show, it’s likely to be less strident politically than some of Fox’s other choices.
Even if O’Reilly remains, MacCallum’s future isn’t completely set: Fox hasn’t said what will happen at the 7 p.m. time slot after Trump’s first 100 days.
The bitingly sarcastic libertarian already with a show on Fox, Greg Gutfeld, would also likely be a contender if a prime-time slot opens up, along with veteran commentator Laura Ingraham, a radio host who runs her own website and is well known to O’Reilly’s audience as a guest and a substitute host.