NEW YORK â€” Embattled Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly, who announced he was going on vacation starting Wednesday and returning April 24, hasn't taken off this much time consecutively in March or April for at least 10 years, an examination of his show's transcripts revealed.
O'Reilly said he likes to take vacation around this time and that he booked this year's break months ago. That would appear to stave off stories that the cable host had been pressured to make himself scarce for a while. His show has seen an advertiser exodus since reports emerged of settlements reached with five women to keep quiet about harassment accusations.
Fox would not discuss whether network executives influenced the duration or timing of his break. O'Reilly's announcement immediately set off speculation about whether cable television's most popular host will return at all.
"I grab some vacation, because it's spring and Easter time," O'Reilly said Tuesday. "Last fall, I booked a trip that should be terrific."
Transcripts over the last decade show O'Reilly has taken at least some time off in March or April every year, although usually they amount to long weekends. He took a week off at the end of March last year. He appeared to be away for six consecutive days in April 2010, although not every night's transcript was available for that time. O'Reilly usually takes vacation time in August, too.
Dana Perino, former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, substituted for O'Reilly on Wednesday night.
Dozens of advertisers announced they would not run commercials on "The O'Reilly Factor" following a New York Times story on April 2 that the five women have been paid a total of $13 million in settlements. O'Reilly has denied any wrongdoing.
The amount of ad time by paying customers on his show has since been cut by more than half, an analysis by Kantar Media revealed.
The stories haven't cut into his audience, though. "The O'Reilly Factor" averaged more viewers the week after the report than it did the week before, the Nielsen company said. O'Reilly this year has seen the biggest ratings of his career.
Joe Muto, a former Fox producer who used to work with O'Reilly, said he wouldn't be surprised if the vacation was O'Reilly's idea. The pugnacious O'Reilly is used to political attacks, but is bothered when criticism reaches the broader culture, noting last weekend's "Saturday Night Live" skit with Alec Baldwin impersonating O'Reilly and John Oliver suggesting on HBO that he wanted to buy ad time on O'Reilly's show.
"He has to lay low, and as long as another shoe doesn't drop, it could blow over for him," said Muto, who wrote "An Atheist in the Fox Hole" in 2013 about his experiences as an anonymous "mole" writing his experiences working at Fox.
Since last weekend, Fox's parent 21st Century Fox said it has asked the same law firm that investigated harassment charges against former Fox News chief Roger Ailes last year to look into another woman's claim that spurning O'Reilly's sexual advances slowed her career.
The vacation plans set off a round of palace intrigue. New York magazine reported anonymous sources suggesting some division among the Murdoch family that runs 21st Century Fox. The magazine said that while family patriarch Rupert Murdoch and his son, Lachlan, wanted to keep O'Reilly, son James would like to see him taken off the air. The company declined to comment Wednesday.
The Fox issues have spilled over into Britain, where Murdoch is attempting to gain full control of broadcaster Sky PLC. British media regulator Ofcom is reviewing public interest issues surrounding 21st Century Fox's plan to buy the shares it doesn't already own in Sky. It and the U.K. competition regulator are due to report next month to Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, who will decide whether to approve the takeover.
Fox already owns 39 per cent of Sky, a broadcasting and broadband company with operations throughout Europe. An earlier attempt to buy the remaining shares was scuttled by the 2011 phone-hacking scandal that rocked Murdoch's British newspapers.
On Wednesday U.S. online civil liberties group Color of Change wrote to U.K. media regulator Ofcom, urging it to investigate racial discrimination and sexual harassment at Fox News and 21st Century Fox before allowing the bid for Sky to move forward.
Associated Press writers Hillel Italie in New York, Jill Lawless in London and Lynn Elber in Los Angeles, and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.
David Bauder, The Associated Press