“I’m not really surprised,” Bill O’Reilly said. It was early evening on April 21, and Mr. O’Reilly was getting ready for his television program, The O’Reilly Factor . He was also-in a calm, Bill O’Reilly voice-explaining his complete, utter lack of astonishment at being the most-watched person in cable news.
“The plan was always to have a forum that was different and would attract a certain percentage of Americans who were just tired of the same old B.S.,” he said. Noting that Fox News was available in 75 million homes, he said, “I felt I could get 10 percent of the audience on any given day. I thought it was doable.”
I thought it was doable. Mr. O’Reilly was summarizing How He Conquered Television-his chapter of the Great Fox News/Rupert Murdoch Revolution-as banally as a tile guy summarizing how to apply grout in the shower. 75 million homes. Get 10 percent. Squeeze the grout. Dry the grout.
It took more than that, of course. It took Monica and a screwy election and 9/11, too, which primed and bred the cable-news audience. It took a Vegas publicist’s talent for shameless self-promotion. It took tough gotcha stories, like the flogging The Factor gave the United Way over charity payments, and easy gotcha stories, like the flogging it gave George Clooney. It took the growth of Fox News, which revolutionized news television by unabashedly reformulating it as political-identity television. And it certainly took the help of Roger Ailes, Fox News’ chairman and Gepetto, a relentless aggressor and executive that Mr. O’Reilly admitted is his stylistic soul mate, and “the only guy on earth that is more competitive than I am.”
But it also took: Bill O’Reilly. Over the course of six-and-a-half years, Mr. O’Reilly, a former ABC and CBS and local news reporter with a brief porno career as the host of the tabloid Inside Edition , brewed an effective if incendiary cocktail of showmanship, white suburban angst, simmering class and cultural rage-and then mixed in just enough self-deprecation to show he wasn’t an absolute a-hole. He would beat his bashers to the punch. On the Factor he could be a simplistic buffoon, but then he would air the letters calling him a simplistic buffoon. He cut off his interview subjects, but he gave them the last word. It may have been just one word, but he gave it to them.
He had an unshakable, almost cartoonish surety. We live in a gray, cynical world-just like Jerry McGuire said-and those whose job it is to cover it often describe it as frustratingly
complicated, but Mr. O’Reilly offered clarity. He had his good guys (William Safire, Charlton Heston, Gene Hackman), and his bad guys (Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Warren Beatty)-he actually says “bad guys,” like he’s an L.A. gumshoe-and his absolute rights and absolute wrongs. He was the De-Complicator. The Factor would let others do the gray stuff.
And yet there was always a glimmer. You may loathe Mr. O’Reilly-and his loathe line grows every day alongside his love line-but even when he’s doing the battering-ram act you despise the most-beating the pulp out of some hapless liberal punching bag like a heavyweight champ working over a sparring partner-and he turns triumphantly to face the camera after knocking the poor sap into oblivion, you can see a little Barnum-esque twinkle in those blue eyes, maybe even a teensy-weensy wink, enough that it makes you think, maybe just for a second , that he’s not a total prick or totally evil and it’s at least partly a show, an act for the camera, that he’s playing a bit, kind of like Vince McMahon, and that maybe, just maybe, when he goes home he actually watches the BBC, eats gorp and thumbs through The Utne Reader .
Though he’s not, in fact, acting-“Bill in real life is the Bill on the show,” said Fox News network executive producer Bill Shine-that little twinkle is what makes him saleable prime-time TV. It’s what prevents him from ranting off into the ideologue’s la-la land, from being a humorless yahoo, from being Rush Limbaugh-who, let’s not forget, was a flop on TV.
But Mr. O’Reilly, he’s No. 1 . He’s not reaching the audience of the network evening news-yet-but for take-what-you-can-get cable, his Nielsens are screwy numbers, Wingo numbers. He averaged three million people per night for the first quarter of this year (January through March) and five million per night watched him during the war. Seven million tuned in on the war’s first night. He whups everybody. He used to chase Larry King’s suspenders; now Larry King chases Mr. O’Reilly’s Arnold Brant suits.
Now he’s the hunted. After first dismissing him as a lark, the cable competition has taken two big multimillion-dollar swipes at him, and CNN and MSNBC have the remaindered Connie Chung Tonight and Donahue! T-shirts and mouse pads to prove it. On their way to the graveyard, neither Ms. Chung nor Mr. Donahue put even a dent in Mr. O’Reilly’s program. He only got bigger.
Today, the competition’s idea is to beat Mr. O’Reilly at his own game, or at least take a portion of his audience. MSNBC-the network of John Chancellor!-hired a baby O’Reilly named Joe Scarborough and the stark-raving porcupine Michael Savage to try and cultivate a right-of-center audience. Mr. O’Reilly was unthreatened, but didn’t dismiss either.
“Is there an audience for a Factor Jr . or Factor Lite ?” he asked. “Yeah, there’s an audience for that.” Not at 8 p.m., he said-that was his hour. “But you go on at 10 p.m. and you do the Factor Lite , yeah, you might get some drive-by people coming in and looking. It certainly beats the alternative, which is just sitting there on your duff and letting anybody say anything they want.”
Could Mr. O’Reilly get knocked off? Here the O’Reilly ego went into surprising submission. “It could happen at any time,” he said. “Some brash new talent comes along and captures the imagination of people, people might get tired of me.”
It probably wasn’t going to happen any time soon, however. In Fox, Mr. O’Reilly-who’s sung an endless opera about his estrangement from what he calls the “blue chip” world of broadcast network television-has found his perfect habitat. They treat him like a pasha-a reported $4 million a year-and in a workplace where top management has its mitts on everything, his show gets left on its own. Within Fox’s news-gathering operation, The O’Reilly Factor is kind of what 60 Minutes was, in its prime, at CBS News: a separate, self-governing state.
“I don’t have anything to do with the way Fox covers the news,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “My show is totally divorced from all of that.”
And though he is their biggest star, he is not, contrary to popular perception, a pure Fox Newsman. Mr. Ailes, more than anyone, is pure Fox News, and there are those in his shop who imbibe the charismatic ex-Nixon (and unofficial George W. Bush) adviser’s rah-rah incantations about the news and political machine with religious-like fervor. Mr. O’Reilly likes Mr. Ailes and is grateful for making him what he is, but he cuts his own path in the newsroom. “He’s not a Kool-Aid drinker,” said Mr. Shine. Mr. O’Reilly is not even a pure conservative, as demonstrated by his opposition to the death penalty and his support of issues like gun control and gay adoption, the latter bolstered by an incongruous Factor visit by Rosie O’Donnell.
And though Mr. O’Reilly is clearly a fan of Bill O’Reilly, and surely likes the bucks and bestsellers that come with fame, he’s not even that comfortable with being a star. On camera, Mr. O’Reilly thrives on being the center of attention, and even undiscovered Amazon tribes have heard his I-won’t-dine-at-21 protests by now, but socially, he can be genuinely withdrawn.
“You could go to a party and you would not know Bill was there,” Mr. Shine said. “He is not the guy who is the loudest or standing by the door so everyone sees him.”
It’s not as if he isn’t a team player. Though Fox was criticized for its Pentagon pom-pom shakers, Mr. O’Reilly said he was proud of his network’s war coverage.
“The reason that Fox News won the war coverage wasn’t because we were waving the flag in the in the corner of the television set,” he said. “We hustled and we got good stories and we were right – our analysis was right, our reporting was right, and our military guys were right. We didn’t have the generals going around, saying, ‘Oh the war plan is failing.’ It wasn’t because we were jingoistic. It was because we had better guys.”
Like Geraldo Rivera? Mr. O’Reilly’s mustachioed co-worker had taken some abuse for getting booted from Iraq by the U.S. military for sketching troop movements in the sand during the war. Though Mr. O’Reilly called Mr. Rivera a “feature reporter” – “He’s like the guy you send out for GQ to get why Halston is a maniac,” he said – he thought the fuss over the sand-sketching was “ridiculous,” incomparable with the other big media-troversy of the war, Peter Arnett’s star turn on Iraqi TV.
“You got Geraldo drawing a little map in the sand, where nobody can make out what the hell he is talking about,” he said. “I thought he was drawing a map of his old girlfriend!”
As for Fox’s prime time lineup, Mr. O’Reilly felt it was performing well. He said his 10 P.M. colleague, Greta Van Susteren, had lately found a groove covering the legal intricacies of the Laci Peterson murder, and he praised the success of the Laurel & Hardy pundit act at 9 p.m., Hannity & Colmes . “They have done very well for themselves,” he said of Mr. Hannity and Mr. Colmes, though he did add: “Haven’t evolved a lot, but it’s working.”
As for the Factor, Mr. O’Reilly said that his ratings successes meant that certain things that used to be hard for the show were easier – getting guests, for example. But he acknowledged: “We still don’t get the rank ideologues like Daschle, and John Ashcroft won’t come on the program. Jeb Bush won’t come on the program. Anybody we criticize, they don’t like it, and they play that game. But we don’t need them.”
Big shot guests or not, Mr. O’Reilly said it was important to keep the Factor “fluid,” and he said he had purposefully taken the program on a more investigative tack, playing up injustices reported by his own staff and toning down on the opinionizing about other people’s news. He even claimed that he was not as much as a yeller as advertised. “The temptation always is to say, ‘Look, if you do O’Reilly, O’Reilly is going to yell at you,'” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often. It really takes a lot for me to be insulting – because it works against the program when I do that. It might be an initial, ‘Oh yeah!’ shock value thing, but if you get that reputation, you’re Morton Downey Jr.”
But being on top was tough, he said. He’d taken plenty of hits, most recently (and unfairly, he said) for a widely reported comment he made while hosting a benefit for disadvantaged youth group in Washington D.C., where he wondered aloud if members of the said disadvantaged youth group were outside “stealing our hubcaps.”
Such attacks were increasingly common, he said, and he confessed they could be stressful.
“It’s a different kind of stress,” he said. “In the beginning it was the stress to succeed. Now basically it’s the stress to survive – survive all these things that happen on almost a daily basis, because these people will stop at nothing to try and paint you as they want to paint you as.”
Even Bill O’Reilly wasn’t totally bulletproof yet. “I get mad,” he said. “And then it goes away.”
He wasn’t planning to go away. He said, with gusto, that the news business was on the verge of a “changing of the guard,” that cable networks were about to overtake broadcast networks, maybe not in terms of raw ratings numbers, but in terms of influence – what he called “the ability to change things, the ability to right wrongs, expose scandal.”
“All of those things are changing, and changing dramatically,” he said.
In other words, Fox News would soon rule the news world. Would Mr. O’Reilly ever consider going someplace else?
“I have no other job that I want,” he said. “And believe me, they have offered me those jobs. Whatever job has been around, I have been offered it. Because we’re making such a staggering amount of money here.”
What if NBC’s Bob Wright went to G.E.’s Jeffrey Immelt, got him to fill the skating rink at Rockefeller Center with $100 bills and let you take what you could grab to come to NBC?
“I don’t work for money,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “I never have. I don’t want any other job. This job for me is a job I can go to every day and not have to worry about Monday morning quarterbacking, a million meetings, backbiting, all of that. I like Ailes, I like his style, he’s very compatible with my style. There isn’t a job in the broadcast world-not one-I would want.”
How long would he stay at it? Would he be on the air at 80, still rocking and raving?
“I am not addicted,” Bill O’Reilly said. “I will not be like Mike Wallace.”