WASHINGTON, June 2, 2017 ⏤ Even though his show was rated number one for 17 years, Bill O’Reilly was fired by Fox News from his job as their most popular television host. There was some talk that Sean Hannity would also be dismissed, but he stayed.
Although the reasons for their troubles were different, the decisions to fire O’Reilly and keep Hannity were based on the same factor.
Most of the mainstream media has views different from those expressed by O’Reilly and Hannity, and they probably wanted to see both removed from their shows. But enmity from the media was not the deciding factor. Nor was the severity of the accusations against O’Reilly.
The decision to fire or not comes down to economics. A network provides a service to its target market. With Fox, that market is mostly conservatives, and their product offerings cater to the wants of that market.
Over the years, Fox has become quite good at satisfying those wants. At the same time, the conservative side of the market has grown. Since every other network virtually ignored conservatives, Fox drew very large audiences, particularly during the peak hours between 7:00 and 10:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Advertising is the lifeblood of commerce. To maximize exposure and keep the cost of attracting and keeping customers to a minimum, companies try to advertise where the viewing audience is the largest.
Networks base their pricing on the number of potential consumers that can be reached with each ad. O’Reilly and Hannity both had very large audiences, and the rate to advertise on their programs was high. Their shows were profitable, and the 150 or so advertisers involved were pleased.
When allegations were raised against O’Reilly, Fox’s competitors, eager to knock him off his dominant perch, hyped his problems. They turned unproven allegations into a social issue and recast O’Reilly as a predatory sexist unworthy of corporate support. They convinced the public that O’Reilly was guilty of sexual harassment.
The media further suggested that people should boycott products advertised on O’Reilly’s show. They created such a firestorm that the businesses advertising on his show felt compelled to pull their ads. When advertisers abandoned his show, O’Reilly was dismissed. His show would no longer be economically feasible for Fox.
The media claimed that a story reported by Hannity was untrue. Truth in the media is a shaky and contentious subject, and Hannity’s enemies spied yet another opportunity to cut down the competition. They set out to create another firestorm in hopes that he, too, would be removed.
The public was not convinced. The firestorm fizzled. A few sponsors said they would leave Hannity’s show, but not many, and some, like USAA, came back under pressure from their customers. Since most advertisers stayed with him, his show continued to run at a large profit. It made economic sense to keep him.
This pair of media stories demonstrates just who has the power to decide which TV hosts stay and which ones don’t. Ultimately, it is not the network or the media. It is not even the firms that sponsor these shows. The power over and control of the media is in the hands of TV’s consumers. That is, just as NPR says, everything depends on viewers like you.
This is true in every market for every product. Economists view this as a quintessentially democratic process. They say consumers cast “dollar votes” every time they purchase a product. The products with the most votes continue to be offered to the market because consumers want them and they are profitable for business.
Products that consumers don’t want, they don’t buy. Those products go away, and unless the firms providing them make changes, they go, too.
If frustrated American viewers want changes in the media, we should cast our dollar votes for products sold by the sponsors of those programs and journalists we favor, eschewing products supporting those that we don’t. Wisely directing our media spending ultimately gives media control back to us.