In the end, Fox News star Bill O'Reilly was undone by the herd of advertisers that stampeded for the exits.
Although over the years Fox and O'Reilly paid $13 million to settle sexual harassment accusations from a number of women, according to a New York Times investigation, the tipping point that led to Wednesday's firing of the talk show host was caused by an exodus of brand names that feared a consumer backlash.
"I've always asked, 'How many women have to come forward for one woman to be believed,' but I guess there's no substitute for a loss in advertising dollars," says attorney Gloria Allred, whose practice specializes in sexual harassment cases. She represents dozens of women suing comedian Bill Cosby as well as President Trump accuser Summer Zervos.
"Every company hit with these suits has to do a public relations, economic and brand calculation," says Allred. "Follow the money and you understand why businesses make the decisions they do."
Rem Reider, a longtime media critic and contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, says "the dramatic exodus of advertisers was really an exclamation point, even as viewership held up. It really was well past time to clean house, even if the clean-up meant the departure of such a dominant force."
Investors don't seem to be penalizing Fox's parent company for dismissing their controversial money-maker. 21st Century Fox stock was down 0.8% and remained flat in after hours trading. Some analysts expect that cutting the cord with O'Reilly will ultimately prove in the company's best interest.
"Investors don't like uncertainly or distraction," says Tuna Amobi, equity analyst with CFRA Research. "The market reaction to this is muted because there's a sense this won't be earth-shattering."
Amobi estimates that O'Reilly's long-running show, "The O'Reilly Factor," which continued to enjoy high ratings even in past weeks, brought in roughly $150 million in advertising last year, a small fraction of the $7 billion raked in by Fox News. "It's a drop in the bucket for them," he says.
The bigger liability, Amobi says, would have been keeping O'Reilly after a very public dismissal of Fox News boss Roger Ailes after he was hit with charges of sexual discrimination by Megyn Kelly and other female Fox anchors and contributors. "It was no longer just about finances, it was reputation," he says, noting that more than 60 big brands abandoned O'Reilly's show in the wake of the scandal.
Besides being able to win back some of those advertisers, which range from Mercedes-Benz to Coldwell Banker, an O'Reilly-free Fox could improve its chances of finally taking over British cable giant Sky.
Fox's first effort at buying the company in 2011 was derailed by an email hacking scandal at one of its British tabloids. This second attempt would be subject to a "fit and proper" test that would have been in jeopardy with a high-profile star embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal.
"If they hadn't taken action (against O'Reilly), it could have been a negative factor in the 'fit and proper' test," says Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research Group.
But the question remains whether these are new days at Fox News. 21st Century Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch told employees in a memo Wednesday that while O'Reilly was "one of the most accomplished TV personalities in the history of cable news," his dismissal was a signal that Fox was committed to "fostering a work environment built on values of trust and respect."
Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, is skeptical.
"O'Reilly may be out, but this isn't over," she said in a statement. "Fox News condoned, even supported, O'Reilly's heinous misconduct for years." O'Neill is calling for New York city and state authorities to investigate the company's "culture of sexual and racial harassment."
Judy Muller, journalism professor at the University of Southern California, says the departures of O'Reilly and Ailes will in fact send a "clear message to other people in the workplace that this just won't fly anymore. It's really empowering for women in the newsroom."
But the reality is that O'Reilly's fall does not signal the dawn of a more enlightened view on sexual discrimination, says Carine Mardorossian, author of Framing the Rape Victim: Gender and Agency Reconsidered. In fact, she argues that only particular women are likely to strike a chord with the public when bringing forth such charges.
With crimes of sexual violence, "you have to be liked as a victim to be perceived as a victim of (this) crime. With other crimes, no one cares if you're likable. A crime is a crime."
Mardorossian notes that in the case of former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, the accuser was married, educated, accomplished and she detailed her upsetting tenure at the ride-hailing start-up in exhaustive detail in a blog post. Similarly, Ailes' fate at Fox was sealed when one of the network's most respected stars, Kelly, came forward.
"You have to be a certain kind of woman to be taken seriously," she says.
That said, the sheer number of women accusing someone of misconduct can also have a galvanizing effect, as in the case of Cosby.
Allred, who is representing 33 of his accusers, says that sort of avalanche can start to some fans to question their support of the star. But, she adds, with sexual harassment in the business environment the calculus is not an emotional one.
"Companies are analyzing what is the risk and exposure of keeping on someone who could be a problem," she says. "That's not a moral decision being made, that's a financial one."
But something feels different about this case, something that could signal a change in climate. Perhaps it's O'Reilly's lofty status as a media personality. Perhaps it's the massive reaction from dozens of well-known companies who pulled their ads.
Allred says she hopes that this very public demotion of a cultural star "will send a message to other companies, that if you're harboring a ticking time bomb it could be an economic and PR disaster for you."
Contributing: Mike Snider, Alia Dastagir and Jefferson Graham
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