This post has been updated.
A familiar theme song rang in the 8 p.m. hour on Fox News Wednesday night, but seven big letters were missing from the splashy graphic that accompanied the music: O-R-E-I-L-L-Y.
The program that followed was simply called “The Factor” and hosted by Dana Perino, roughly five hours after the network confirmed a report that Bill O'Reilly, on vacation since April 11, would not return.
“Before we get to any other big stories of the day,” Perino, a former White House press secretary, began, “we want to address a situation many of you may already be aware of: Bill O'Reilly, who hosted this program for 20 years, is leaving the Fox News Channel. We know that you, his very loyal viewers, will have a lot of feelings about this, and we will talk more about it later in the program.”
Indeed, Perino returned to the subject at the close of the show:
It is the end of an era here at the Fox News Channel. As we mentioned earlier, Bill O'Reilly is leaving this chair and this network after more than 20 years. Bill has been the undisputed King of Cable News — and for good reason. He is an incredibly talented broadcaster who raised the bar for interviewers everywhere. He has also held his staff to exacting standards in his quest to put the best possible program on the air, and they are great.
And you, his audience, responded in record numbers, making “The Factor” the No. 1 cable news show for more than 16 years. You have also been loyal, and we can't tell you how much that means to everyone on “The Factor.”
In a memo to the staff today, Rupert, James and Lachlan Murdoch, who run Fox News, described Bill this way: “By ratings standards, Bill is one of the most accomplished TV personalities in the history of cable news. In fact, his success, by any measure, is indisputable. We wish him the very best.”
Perino did not mention the sexual harassment accusations, denied by O'Reilly, that precipitated his ouster. And Fox News initially avoided O'Reilly's exit on the air. It was a top story on CNN and MSNBC Wednesday afternoon but not on the cable channel where he had been an institution since 1996.
Fox News covered such stories as the congressional election in Georgia's 6th district, the shooting deaths of three white men at the hands of a black gunman in Fresno, Calif., and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's remarks about strengthening economic partnerships with Saudi Arabia. Yet in the hour after the network issued a statement confirming the end of O'Reilly's two-decade run, Fox News made no on-air mention of the prime-time shake-up.
The network's media reporter, Howard Kurtz, later appeared on Bret Baier's “Special Report” to discuss O'Reilly's departure. A Fox News spokeswoman said O'Reilly also would be covered on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” though Carlson merely informed viewers that he will take over O'Reilly's 8 p.m. time slot, starting next week, and said he has “big shoes to fill.” “The Five” will move into Carlson's current, 9 p.m. spot.
Fox News remained quiet throughout the O'Reilly saga, which began when the New York Times reported earlier this month that he and the network had paid $13 million to five women over the years to settle claims of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct. A sixth woman accused O'Reilly of sexual harassment through an attorney Tuesday.
O'Reilly, the most-watched cable news host for 15 straight years, never addressed the charges on his program, even as advertisers abandoned him in droves. Comedian Alec Baldwin mocked O'Reilly's silence on “Saturday Night Live.”
New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman reported Wednesday morning that in negotiating his exit, O'Reilly asked for an opportunity to bid farewell to his audience and that network executives were leaning toward granting his request.
However, Fox News's statement Wednesday afternoon said that “Bill O’Reilly will depart Fox News Channel, effective immediately.”
Covering O'Reilly's departure is awkward for Fox News, no doubt, but ignoring it forever seemed impossible. He is one of the most significant figures in the American media; his going off the air is a major news story, regardless of the circumstances.