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Much at stake in O'Reilly empire

The commentator's cable TV future and various projects could be affected by a sexual harassment lawsuit.

October 18, 2004|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

For the moment, the "No Spin Zone" is turning into a No Show Zone.

When a 33-year-old associate producer sued Bill O'Reilly last week, claiming he'd subjected her to lewd "monologues" and pressured her to engage in phone sex, the host of the nation's No. 1 cable talk show came out swinging, accusing the woman and her attorney of attempting to extort $60 million.

But the outspoken O'Reilly has since grown uncharacteristically subdued -- and it has become clear that the fate of his merchandising and publishing empire, no less than his future as a top-rated cable-TV star, may be hanging in the balance.

A guest host sat in for him Friday on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor," and O'Reilly abruptly canceled appearances to promote his new book, "The O'Reilly Factor for Kids," on ABC's "The View" and HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher." He also scrapped a sit-down scheduled for today on CBS' "The Early Show" and a Nov. 1 talk with PBS host Charlie Rose, according to Seale Ballenger, a spokesman for publisher Harper Entertainment (which, like Fox News, is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.)

Since rising to prominence during the Clinton impeachment, O'Reilly's "No Spin" empire has spread successfully into other media. Three previous books have been national bestsellers. He also hosts a nationally syndicated radio program and is a highly sought-after speaker. His website ( premium memberships for $49.95 a year.

"We hope to resume the book promotion with Mr. O'Reilly at a later date, and we wish him well during this difficult time," the publisher said in a statement. A woman who answered the phone Friday at O'Reilly's office said he was not taking calls, and a Fox News spokesman said he was unavailable for comment.

"I have been advised to keep my big mouth shut, and I have promised to do that," O'Reilly told the New York Daily News in a story published Friday. "I am getting hounded by the press, and I knew I would be.... This has been the worst day of my life."

The showdown with associate producer Andrea Mackris could even end up playing into the network's long-running rivalry with CNN -- which Fox has been beating more than 2 to 1.

One CNN insider said Friday that the network was considering moving "Lou Dobbs Tonight" -- which currently airs at 3 p.m. Pacific time and has been gaining in the ratings as Dobbs has become a more opinionated questioner on issues such as outsourcing of jobs -- to go head-to-head against O'Reilly. CNN wouldn't comment, but an insider said such a move was one of many under consideration.

Still, based on the evidence so far, the deluge of embarrassing publicity over the suit -- which quotes O'Reilly as speaking crudely to his associate producer about vibrators, masturbation, sexual fantasies and exploits -- doesn't seem to have curbed popular appetites for the talk-show host. On the contrary, 3.3 million viewers tuned in to his program Thursday night -- about 10% more than usual -- to hear O'Reilly denounce Mackris, while not specifically denying any of her charges.

His latest book briefly rose in sales rankings after news of the suit broke, although by Sunday it had dropped to No. 116, down from No. 56 on Friday evening. And O'Reilly's website still offered branded merchandise for sale, including "Boycott France" bumper stickers ($2.50), "The Spin Stops Here!" tote bags ($19.95) and "The Rain Stops Here" umbrellas ($37.50).

Over the long term, the survival of O'Reilly and his enterprises may hinge on the contents of the tapes that many believe Mackris made of their conversations (she has not confirmed their existence, and her lawyer did not return calls Friday).

"If he comes off as being a sleazeball on the tapes ... that could be devastating to his career," said Alan Siegel, founder of the New York-based branding firm Siegel & Gale. But if the tapes never materialize, Siegel added, "I think he's strong enough to 'spin' this, even though he says he doesn't do that."

Siegel compared O'Reilly's situation to that of Marv Albert, the sportscaster who was fired from NBC in 1997 after becoming embroiled in a sex scandal and pleading guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge. Albert later said he underwent therapy, and he's since resumed his career at several cable networks.

But Albert is a play-by-play announcer, not a commentator who weighs in nightly on social and political issues. O'Reilly has criticized politicians and entertainers he believes set a bad example. In 2002, for example, he launched a campaign against rapper Ludacris, whom he accused of peddling "a life of guns, violence, drugs and disrespect of women." PepsiCo subsequently pulled an ad featuring the performer, saying it had received complaints about his lyrics.

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