Papa Bear is gone from the airwaves. Someone else will now take his time slot. But can he really, truly be replaced?
“Papa Bear” is Bill O’Reilly, of course – the 8:00 p.m. star who helped make Fox News the right-leaning network of choice. Comedian Stephen Colbert gave Mr. O’Reilly the nickname while shaping his old “Colbert Report” into a satire of and homage to the newscaster’s blustery approach.
Fox ditched O’Reilly this week in the face of a growing sexual harassment scandal. The scale of the problem and its moral, legal, and financial implications probably left the network no choice. Now it must steer its most popular show in a different direction.
But that’s a much bigger problem than simply finding a new person to sit behind a desk. Replacing O'Reilly's ratings and filling his role in the conservative movement will be very difficult tasks.
Meanwhile, the rise of President Trump is changing what it means to be conservative. New right-leaning outlets are snapping for the Fox News audience. It’s important to maintain the loyalty of existing older viewers – but necessary to reach out to new, younger ones as well. And those youngsters might not be looking for a “Papa Bear” authority figure who will be the new media star or stars for Millennials – and many look to other forms of media, such as podcasts, for their news.
“Our generation, younger conservatives, tend not to latch onto a single figure and follow them religiously,” says John Wood, an international relations major and chairman of the College Republicans at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
Why he struck a chord with millions of Americans
In some ways Bill O’Reilly was an unlikely choice for the face of right-leaning America. Though his background might be appropriate – middle-class, Long Island, a bit rough around the edges – he was not doctrinaire. He was not so much libertarian as individualist.
And while his positions on many issues aligned with Republican views, some saw him as more populist than conservative.
Perhaps Fox News architect Roger Ailes sensed that there were silent millions of television watchers who would find him an antidote to the polish and perceived liberalism of network anchors. In retrospect, O’Reilly seems to have been something of a bridge between the intellectualism of ‘60’s era TV conservatives such as William F. Buckley and the high-volume shout-fests that now occupy the late night hours of cable news.
“He really struck a chord with your average Americans. Self-made guy. Conservative guy. Not born into this elitist, super wealthy, globalist, media class,” says Phillip Trometter, a self-described conservative Millennial and vice-president at an economic development firm in Pennsylvania.
And to many on the right side of the political spectrum, O’Reilly was not just a communicator. He was a defender during an era they felt needed defending.
As Mr. Trometter notes, O’Reilly was unafraid to go on liberal-leaning shows such as “The View” and mix it up with the other side.
“[He] would always argue. Right to the face of people criticizing him,” says Trometter.
Wanted: A new star that appeals to young people, too
But now Fox must look for an O’Reilly replacement. His run as the nation’s top-rated cable news personality came to an abrupt end this week as Fox officials forced him out following a string of revelations about sexual harassment allegations.
Given that Fox News founder Roger Ailes was fired earlier this year for allegedly brutal mistreatment of women, the network decided it could not even allow O’Reilly back on air to say goodbye to his viewers.
That puts Fox in something of a bind. Unlike Trometter, many members of the O’Reilly audience are older. They’ve helped make O’Reilly’s “Factor” the highest-rated cable news show, and Fox doesn’t want to drive them away. How to keep them, and attract more viewers of the Millennial generation?
By definition, a defender of the faith is somewhat doctrinaire. And the same old ideological content won’t attract today’s younger viewers, conservative or otherwise, says Brian Rosenwald, a political and media historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on the political impact of talk radio.
Younger people who are politically engaged today tend to be more eclectic, says Rosenwald in an emailed response to a reporter’s questions. They tend to be more moderate or more libertarian in perspective.
They might be open to a Fox News evening show that looks more like the product of a mainstream media outlet, according to Rosenwald. Think of an hour run by Chris Wallace, or Bret Baier – two Fox anchors known as reporters more than commentators.
Or Fox could replace O’Reilly with a younger, less-doctrinaire right-leaning figure such as current CNN contributor S.E. Cupp, or pollster and pundit Kristen Soltis Anderson.
But these choices risk infuriating the existing audience twice, says Rosenwald. In the first place, O’Reilly loyalists will be mad because they’ll think Fox caved to liberal media and interest groups in getting rid of the ex-“Factor” host. In the second place, they’ll be annoyed if the new host isn’t a pugnacious champion of what O’Reilly deems “old-school values” in his latest book.
“My guess is that Fox will ride the current model for as long as they can,” writes Rosenwald.
Someone who will expand the tent – or fire up the base?
Of course, this carries risks in the other direction. Young professionals and college students did not necessarily look to O’Reilly as the defender of their own particular kind of conservatism, and they might never get into the habit of watching Fox’s evening line-up if they feel it’s still pitched to an older generation.
“I don’t think they ever looked at Bill O’Reilly as a beacon of what they believed in. On the contrary, next generation conservatives [are] looking to fresher voices ... especially in the era of Trump,” says Ron Meyer, who manages the Millennial-focused publication Red Alert Politics.
People try to put conservatives in the same box, says Mr. Meyer, but among younger Republicans, there is a significant Trump faction, and a libertarian faction that is relatively leaderless at the moment.
In this context, the Fox News decision to move its 9 p.m. host Tucker Carlson up to O’Reilly’s old 8 p.m. slot might pay off, says Mr. Meyer. Carlson is a more pointed and provocative interviewer than O’Reilly but also seems acceptable to older viewers.
Meyer, who is the youngest elected member of the Loudon County, Va., Board of Supervisors (R – Broad Run), is concerned that the conservative movement may end up speaking only to itself.
“You can’t just speak to other Republicans. In terms of trying to grow a movement, you have to expand the tent. If you believe in commentary being a force for growth in what you believe in, you need to have people who can speak to people who don’t believe in [your views],” he says.
At the moment things seem to be going in the other direction. Online, Breitbart News is fast growing its audience with an edgier, populist, more nationalist attitude that more directly reflects the way Mr. Trump campaigned.
MSNBC continues to shape itself into a Fox for liberals, and it’s had some ratings success. The network’s Rachel Maddow isn’t an O’Reilly-level draw, but it occasionally outdraws its Fox competition among viewers younger than 54.
O’Reilly is gone. But a new celebrity conservative will likely take his place.
“O’Reilly always had what I call the ability to think on his feet. He never got caught in a corner. He was combative and feisty, and I think [Tucker] Carlson will end up being that way,” says Pat Allen, a Fox News watcher from Richmond, Va.
Staff writer Story Hinckley and staffers Amanda Hoover and Ben Rosen contributed reporting.