Bill O’Reilly; a march against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter in New York City, July 9, 2016.

(Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar/Eduardo Munoz/Photo montage by Salon)

On April 11, Fox News Channel’s top-rated host Bill O’Reilly told viewers he would be taking an extended vacation beginning the next day, and that he would return to his duties April 24. That may not end up being the case.

According to several news reports from journalists who are well connected within Fox News and its parent company 21st Century Fox, O’Reilly is now seen as a liability by Fox executives. That is largely the result of an extensive New York Times report published April 1, revealing that O’Reilly and Fox News had paid out more than $13 million in settlements to five different women who had accused O’Reilly of sexual or verbal harassment. Fox News reportedly did little or nothing to reprimand O’Reilly for his alleged behavior.

The Times story set off an ad hoc boycott campaign by left-leaning groups and private individuals seeking to pressure companies who advertised on “The O’Reilly Factor” to cancel their sponsorships. As of this writing, more than 80 companies have done so. O’Reilly’s show has been forced to reduce the amount of time it allots to advertising and also to rely largely on “direct response” ads, which pay significantly less than regular spots.

Originally, 21st Century Fox executive co-chairman and Fox News chairman Rupert Murdoch had hoped to weather the storm of criticism. Now he appears to be contemplating removing O’Reilly from his central spot in the Fox News primetime lineup. That information comes from the Wall Street Journal, a media property also owned by Murdoch. According to both CNN and the New York Times, O’Reilly’s fate is to be decided at a Thursday board meeting of 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News.

According to the Journal’s sources, the 67-year-old O’Reilly had long planned to take this week off from his show, but was pressured into leaving the program a week earlier by Fox officials. The host has also been rocked by new accusations of sexual harassment.

O’Reilly has never admitted to harassing any women and on Tuesday, an attorney representing him denounced the campaign tactics being deployed against him.

“Bill O’Reilly has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America,” Marc E. Kasowitz said in a statement. The attorney vowed to provide “irrefutable” evidence for the charge, a curious claim considering that a number of progressive organizations have openly associates themselves with the “O’Reilly Factor” advertiser boycott campaign.

While Fox corporate brass has only recently become less than ironclad in its support for O’Reilly — on Tuesday, CNN reported that Murdoch’s top spokesperson would not confirm that the “Factor” host would return April 24 — the company has cautiously been making preparations for a possible O’Reilly departure for some time.

For the past five months, Politico reported, Fox News has utilized a rotating crew of guest hosts on Fridays, to such a degree that O’Reilly has only twice appeared on recent Fridays on the program that bears his name. According to an anonymous Fox News staffer, the substitute anchors are part of an effort to create a new show called “Friday Factor,” which would differ from the Monday-through-Thursday original only in subtle ways, such as its labeling in TV listings.

Such explanations are unpersuasive, however, given that temporary host positions have long been used in the television news business to gauge audience reaction to less familiar internal candidates for promotion. Fox News has intensified these experiments during O’Reilly’s current absence, using only the three best-known of its “Friday Factor” substitutes in the anchor chair — Dana Perino, Eric Bolling and Greg Gutfeld.

While the controversy that has surrounded O’Reilly in recent weeks has slightly increased the Nielsen ratings for his program when he was on the air, his substitutes have not done as well.

Last Tuesday, when O’Reilly announced his vacation, around 3.5 million viewers tuned in to his 8 p.m. Eastern Time broadcast. The following evening, Perino drew just 2.8 million watch. She did better on Monday night this week, scoring just under 3.2 million viewers. None of the three substitute hosts have managed to match O’Reilly’s numbers.

Nielsen ratings for recent “O’Reilly Factor” hosts Date Host Ages 25-54, 8pm Total, 8pm Ages 25-54, 11pm Total, 11pm Tuesday, 3/14 Bill O’Reilly

632,000

3,543,000

463,000

1,606,000

Tuesday, 4/11 Bill O’Reilly

634,000

3,605,000

398,000

1,465,000

Wednesday, 4/12 Dana Perino

521,000

2,818,000

352,000

1,410,000

Thursday, 4/13 Eric Bolling

608,000

3,111,000

523,000

1,640,000

Friday, 4/14 Greg Gutfeld

439,000

2,317,000

393,000

1,357,000

Monday, 4/17 Dana Perino

613,000

3,150,000

433,000

1,504,000

Table: Salon Data: TVNewser

That ratings reality is one of the most significant reasons why O’Reilly has been able to survive his various scandals over the years. Simply put, no other cable news host has been able to consistently get more people to tune in than Bill O’Reilly.

While it may be good in the long run for the Fox News brand to disassociate itself from its most popular host — according to news reports, this is the position of Rupert Murdoch’s two sons, who manage the company with him — firing O’Reilly will almost certainly lead to medium-term profit losses and stock value declines.

That’s particularly true since the pugnacious former “Inside Edition” host’s show is the centerpiece of the Fox News weekday primetime lineup, meaning that removing “The O’Reilly Factor” could also decrease ratings for the shows before and after it. A rough estimate suggests that around $1 billion in advertising revenue alone could be at risk.

Those sobering figures are surely working in O’Reilly’s favor as his team negotiates with 21st Century Fox while he’s in Italy. But the short-term financial and reputational impact of the sustained boycott and related protests that Fox now faces appears to be combining with James and Lachlan Murdoch’s desire to tilt Fox in a more mainstream direction. According to Variety, it is now “expected” that O’Reilly will be shown the door.

Across the pond, getting a tell-off headline in one of Rupert Murdoch’s famous London tabloid papers is often the kiss of death in British politics. Bill O’Reilly may have had his own delivered late Tuesday evening courtesy of the Wall Street Journal. Matt Drudge’s seeming obituary for O’Reilly may have been another.