It turns out, however, that such suspicions were well grounded. Documents filed in federal court as part of his suit show that beyond Nolan’s mouthing off publicly against O’Reilly, there was another factor at work—the mutual business interests of two media giants, Comcast and the Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns the Fox News Channel.
On May 12, 2008—two days after the Emmys—O’Reilly went on the offensive against what he called Nolan’s “outrageous behavior” with a carefully worded, lawyerly letter to Brian Roberts, the chairman and CEO of Comcast, which distributes Fox News and entertainment programming, to its subscribers. The letter was written on Fox News stationery and was copied to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.
Pointedly, O’Reilly began by noting their mutual business interests. “We at The O’Reilly Factor have always considered Comcast to be an excellent business partner and I believe the same holds true for the entire Fox News Channel. Therefore, it was puzzling to see a Comcast employee, Barry Nolan, use Comcast corporate assets to attack me and FNC.” Telling the Comcast CEO that Nolan had attended the Emmy Awards “in conjunction with Comcast,” O’Reilly apologized for bothering him but let him know he considered this “a disturbing situation.”
Consider for a moment the weights of the players in this episode. News Corp. ranks second in the latest Fortune 500 list of the world’s largest entertainment companies, right behind the top-rated Walt Disney Company. And if Murdoch is the visionary behind the News Corp. and Fox News CEO Roger Ailes is the driving force behind the Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly stands as the channel’s most visible face, which gives him significant clout. Indeed, this year, O’Reilly was voted one of the “10 Most Powerful in TV News” (tied with Glenn Beck for seventh place) by NewsPro, an industry trade publication—the sixth time O’Reilly has made the list. (Ailes was number one this year.)
By contrast, Barry Nolan is small potatoes. He had stints on two schlocky nationally syndicated TV shows, co-hosting Hard Copy in the 1990s and reporting for Extra in the early 2000s, and he continues to appear on Says You! , NPR’s witty word game. In Boston, he was best known as the co-host, with Sara Edwards, of TV’s Evening Magazine—but even that was more than twenty years ago.
Comcast Corp., Nolan’s former employer, meanwhile, is the country’s largest cable operator and residential Internet service provider. Last December, in a $30 billion deal, Comcast announced plans to take over NBC Universal, which includes everything from NBC Nightly News and Jay Leno, to cable channels such as such as MSNBC, Bravo, USA, and Telemundo, the Spanish-language broadcast network.
The joint venture, pending before the Federal Communications Commission, has already faced criticism from public interest groups like the Center for Digital Democracy, which calls the proposed merger “the equivalent of Godzilla swallowing Rockefeller Center.”
And indeed, when power meets power, the little guy had better look out, especially when the interests of media heavyweights intersect. Cable providers (like Comcast) pay fees to networks (like Fox) to distribute content (like The O’Reilly Factor) to their cable subscribers, with the cable companies negotiating multiyear contracts with the networks. With tens of millions of dollars at stake, negotiations can be bruising affairs. Thus, it’s in the two Goliaths’ interest to keep relations harmonious.
And in this case, though O’Reilly’s usual in-your-face rhetoric was absent from his May 12th letter, the message was clear: Hey, Comcast, don’t forget which side your bread is buttered on.