Kempner: Bill O’Reilly’s replacement had called Fox star a phony

Another heap of bad drama for Fox News is good for a former CNN talker starting this week, but maybe not so much for CNN.

Fox News dumped Bill O’Reilly after publicity about another wave of sexual harassment complaints, legal settlements and hush money.

I suspect it wasn’t an easy decision for a network that has struggled through self-inflicted controversy in the last year over the treatment of its own staffers and contributors. O’Reilly’s nightly evisceration show regularly had the biggest ratings in all of cable news and his numbers were growing (thank you, Donald). He held that spot for about a decade and a half, which in the TV industry is equivalent to, well, forever.

His replacement, Tucker Carlson, who takes over the time slot Monday at 8 pm, has had shows on all three major news networks, including sort-of-Atlanta-based CNN. Years ago he labeled O’Reilly as a “humorless phony.”

So O’Reilly fans might be perturbed that 1) Fox News dumped him and 2) The new guy previously criticized the old guy.

Said Carlson on air the other day, “We’ve got big shoes to fill. We are going to do our best.”

He promised his show will be “the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness and group think.”

If NBC ditches a top star, you can bet its audience might start checking out CBS, Fox, ABC or a bunch of other entertainment networks.

The cable TV news business is a different beast. Plenty of viewers turn to them for entertainment (thank you, Donald). But we’ve heard how polarized TV audiences are — at least those who are most solidly conservative or liberal — when it comes to their news habits. Yes, some people sample among the news networks.

Personal identity

But for some regular viewers, their TV news brand is part of their personal identity. I can’t picture them giving up on Fox News. And, if they did, I can’t picture them jumping to CNN or MSNBC.

I’ve read speculation that Fox News could lose a quarter of its 8 p.m. base with the ouster of O’Reilly.

Even if it did, the time slot likely would still be among the top two programs on cable news.

Carlson himself has proven the resiliency of Fox News viewers. He was pulled in to evening slots vacated by Greta Van Susteren and, in January, Megyn Kelly. Ratings for the show are up during his short tenure, and it commands the second biggest audience in cable news, with a lead-in from O’Reilly.

It’s too much to give all the credit to Carlson. Because in the news ratings business, Donald Trump solves all.

With a president who regularly jolts the news cycle, viewership is up solidly for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. As much as Trump likes to pummel CNN (and takes swipes at the larger free press), he and his administration generate news that keeps people watching.

That’s not likely to end, no matter who is in the 8 p.m. slot for Fox News.

Carlson is tough. During on-air interviews has perfected facial expressions that are simultaneously affable and alarming, at least for guests who are being pounced on.

Bow tie schtick

His first regular gigs on TV were at CNN. I interviewed him when he served on the network’s left-right political slug fest called “Crossfire.” That was back when Carlson’s shtick included wearing a bow tie. Crossfire’s ratings were sinking. CNN was trying to add pizzazz with a live audience, “high energy” music, fiery show graphics and a new batch of leftie commentators to face off against righties Carlson and Robert Novak.

By then, Fox News was already racking up ratings wins. But, like a lot of people at CNN, Carlson hadn’t seen the power of Fox News coming.

“I didn’t think they had a very good chance of succeeding,” he recently told my colleague Rodney Ho. “Nobody had taken them seriously at all.”

Back then, when he was in CNN’s camp, he took swipes at O’Reilly, in a book Carlson authored, in an videotape that appeared on C-SPAN and in a Salon interview.

Carlson called the man he will now take the place of “a thin-skinned blowhard” and a “humorless phony.”

He credited O’Reilly for being a talented communicator. But then Salon also quoted him as saying this: “However, I don’t know who would want to watch that s***. Do you?”

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