With Nielsen results for January in the books, it's official now: Fox News Channel has been on top of the cable new sector for 10 years, since January 2002.
Bill O'Reilly has been with Fox News Channel from its inception in October 1996, with his show originally airing as The O'Reilly Report. A local station and network newsman, O'Reilly turned around the floundering Inside Edition before attending Harvard and then joining FNC, where his smarts, toughness and strong opinions have turned the since renamed The O'Reilly Factor into cable news' top show for 134 consecutive months, since March 2001.
O'Reilly, in a recent interview with Multichannel News online editor Mike Reynolds, looks back at what has made the Factor a TV icon, FNC's perch atop the cable news sector for the past decade, what lies ahead with the November election, and his future. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: Going back to Roger Ailes' initial mission statement of attracting more viewers by presenting facts, by being balanced and fair, to what depth has the network succeeded on those fronts?
Bill O'Reilly: You know, it's hard for me to say with any clarity because I'm in a different position than people who watch from the outside. I mean I do my program and, of course, and I have Fox News Channel on while I'm working, when I'm watching Fox and Friends and assembling the video and what we have and all of that. So I'm not looking at it from any other viewpoint than information.
But I do notice the presentation of the various people on the channel and all I can tell you is that I see a huge difference between Fox News' presentation and the presentation on our competition, CNN and MSNBC and Headline News. And the difference is basically more authenticity. You know on one network you're getting a very strong leftwing, partisan approach, which is fine, they can do what they want. And then the other, you're getting the traditional, trying to be middle of the road, but a culture that is much more liberal than traditional.
And I think that as far as the facts are concerned, there's not much difference between CNN and Fox. And MSNBC doesn't really deal in facts, so we don't take them...
O'Reilly: I'm not saying that disparagingly; they just don't do it. They don't have a Shephard Smith broadcast, they don't have a Bret Baier broadcast, they don't have news blocks throughout the day. And they don't have correspondents of their own: they borrow NBC's correspondents. They're really not in business to give you any facts...
There's no real difference in the factual presentation between Fox and CNN. It's what stories you cover, what you feel is interesting to your audience. And there is where Roger Ailes' philosophy comes into play. It's story selection.
CNN is heavy on storms and Syria and rebellion and you know, basically, the traditional stuff.
But Fox News is much more interested in how the news affects the folks. So that they'll get into the fabric of a teenager who wants to mention God in a valedictorian address, and there's a big controversy over it. We'll cover that whereas the others won't.
That is why, rather than a conservative-liberal brawl, we have such a broad audience. And you know the surveys say that independents and liberals watch us, as well as conservatives, because the stories are inherently more interesting to their lives.
MCN: Do you think many see you as the face, voice of the Fox News Channel?
O'Reilly: I know I'm famous and all of that and, usually, the big mouths get the attention and certainly I'm a big mouth. But I don't really look at it like I'm the face of the network or anything like that. What I try to do is deliver a good program so that people will watch it, so we'll get high ratings and the network will prosper. I mean it's just a simple business proposition.
MCN: The O'Reilly Factor has been the top cable news show for 134 consecutive months. Are you just doing your job every day and the results come?
O'Reilly: Well, no. I'm a very competitive guy, so I want to win and by a huge margin. I remember early on, I was competing against Chris Matthews' Hardball on MSNBC at 8 p.m., and I said, ‘We're going to beat this guy. We're going right after him.'
And they looked at me askance because we only had, at that point, maybe 50 million subscribers. We just didn't have a lot of eyeballs available to us. I said, ‘Well, we're going to beat them.' I targeted them and I targeted Larry King in the sense that I saw his rating, ‘We can do higher than that.' I am a competitive guy.
It's not enough just to win the night, we have to win the night decisively. And we've been lucky enough to do it primarily because we are focused on and know what the audience likes. But we don't pander to the audience.
I got an interesting story last August when the Tea Party was screaming, 'Don't make any compromises on the budget. Don't do this.' And I laced them. And we lost a lot of Bill O'Reiley.com premium [subscriptions] that night. ‘I'm sorry you're mad at me, but I'm telling you what I think is the right thing for the country.'
And I think in the long run that people will respect that. And if you lose a few, you lose a few. But that has added to our success. And we've broadened it out so that I think anybody can enjoy the program. You don't have to be a conservative or a liberal or an independent. It's just entertaining and informative on its own merits. ..You don't even have to like me. You don't have to like me, to like the show
MCN: What do you think about the job your current time-slot competitors Anderson Cooper and Ed Schultz are doing?
O'Reilly: Well we watch their numbers. I mean Cooper is a professional. He's a different personality than I am; he's not a hot personality. He's certainly skilled in what he does and we respect him. We don't really watch him on a day-to-day basis of what he's doing because he does a different show than we do. We do heavy opinion and he doesn't do that much opinion.
Schultz is an ideologue and he is successful on the radio. As long he doesn't use personal attacks, we have no problem with him. Lately, he's toned that down. We're happy he has -- we don't like the personal attack business. He's got an audience. But our audience is five times larger and that's just the way it is.
MCN: Are you surprised that it took five years for Fox News to beat CNN? That's a quick turn-around from starting from scratch.
O'Reilly: I mean it was all a matter of getting the channel into the homes and having people sample. You know, I'm a fairly confident, cocky guy.
MCN: I know.
O'Reilly: I took over a show called Inside Edition that was going down the drain. They fired David Frost three weeks after he took over and they looked at me and they said, ‘We're going to lose $50 million dollars; can you turn it around?' And I said, ‘Maybe. You know, it depends on how much money you're going to sink into it and how much latitude you're going give me." And I said, ‘I'll take it over, but I have to write everything, including the promos, and get out of my way.' And we turned that around; and that show is still on the air.
So I've always been confident that I can deliver a product that Americans can respond to. And I don't change the product. If we have a bad night on Thursday, I'm not changing it on Friday. We get a game plan, we get good people -- I only have 15, but they're like Navy Seals -- we execute it in a very, disciplined manner.
But everybody has fun...I like to create the kind of environment that's loose and I believe I understand what the folks respond to, which is really the ticket on television. If you look at all the entertainment that has been successful over the years, they know what the folks want to see and execute it well. These are the top-tier shows, and I think we're in that regard.
So I'm not surprised that the Fox News Channel has succeeded; I think it's been a very disciplined operation. I think they know that the traditional audience, which is enormous, was under-served so Roger and the guys came up with a formula, 'We're going to be respectful toward traditional and conservative Americans, not sneering and not demeaning. And just that tone will bring them in, and then we'll give them a product that they feel is worthy.' And that's what happened.
MCN: Ten years on top, that's a long time in any business, much less television. Your sensibility about that achievement and how much longer can Fox News stay on top?
O'Reilly: I don't look ahead like that. I think the achievement has been historic. I think we've changed the face of the way news is presented in this country. So that's satisfying. You know the Factor has iconic status now, which is satisfying. You know, when I grew up, I looked at guys like Howard Cosell, Tom Snyder and Peter Jennings and they were all icons. And now I'm one and I go, ‘Wow, how did that happen?'
You work hard in America, not always, but a lot of times, it pays off. And you don't get cocky, I go to work every day and I try to do my job and try to bring off a good show and I don't really think about it more than that.
MCN: Given the economy, the dissatisfaction with government, the election cycle. Are you anticipating a bigger year than normal for your show and the network?
O'Reilly: Ratings should be fairly strong. I think they'll probably trend down a little bit in the summer. You know, once the nominee for the Republican Party gets established ...you can't really do much the months between May and September. They'll be usual months for us; I don't see a big spike. But once the conventions start and then the fur really starts to roll, I think people will be engaged next fall in the election. It's a very important election. I think everybody will be involved.
MCN: Your reaction to Gingrich's charge that the media's attacking the Republicans in order to re-elect the President?
O'Reilly: There's some validity to that. I think if you look and study what happened the last time around, the media certainly favored Barack Obama over John McCain. You know, it's a matter of degree: There are some vehicles that actually campaign for their favorite person and there're others that are more subtle. But I think that everybody knows, and all the studies show, that the press is generally liberal in America. So Gingrich, in that sense, tapped into a vein that folks know about and that really helped him.
MCN: Do you think that CNN John King's question about infidelity was out of bounds?
O'Reilly: I don't think it was out of bounds per se, but I think it was positioned to embarrass Gingrich. And there's a big difference.
I would have asked the question, but I would not have asked it up top. Because that gives it an importance it doesn't merit because there's no corroboration of what Mary Ann Gingrich said. None. And you know, you could take anybody, any famous person, and you could find somebody to assassinate their character.
O'Reilly: And it's easy, it's cheap, it's done all the time unfortunately. But you know, once I don't see corroboration on any charge, then it goes down. So I would have asked the question later on in the debate and in a way that gave Gingrich the respect that he should have. I would have said, 'Listen, your former wife made some comments to ABC News that we, CNN, cannot corroborate.' ... You're not attacking him. But you're getting on the record what happened. But you'd give him the respect that we cannot corroborate what she said. OK? So right away, you're starting fair and balanced. Then I would have said, 'Do you believe that her comments' -- and I would not have repeated them -- 'will hurt you in this campaign?' That way, you get it on the table, you're not in the tank, you're not ducking it, but you're not giving the credibility that King gave it. And you're not sensationalizing something that's very painful.
And I think Americans know when someone's trying to job you. So I don't think that John King is a malicious guy, I don't think that he said to himself, 'You know, I want to go out and embarrass Newt Gingrich tonight'. I don't think he did. But he didn't think about it deeply enough and it's his responsibility to do that.
And that's what separates, and I'm not bragging now, but I've been doing this for 35 years, that's what separates me from him. When I'm presented with that kind of a situation, whether it's Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich, I think about it a lot. I'm not in business to harm their families or them. But sometimes tough questions have to be asked and I will ask them, always. But I will ask them in a way that is fair. So that's my long, long answer to that question. But it was a good question.
MCN: Will there be a second Obama term or will we have..?
O'Reilly: Impossible to say because the economics will dictate how uneasy the voters feel. If the voter in November feels insecure, then Obama will lose. It really doesn't matter who runs against him. But if things get better and there's optimism in the air, then the President could very well win because he's a very, very good campaigner. And Americans still like him personally.
MCN: And he'll be running against?
O'Reilly: You know, it looks like Romney will be the guy. And once he wins Florida, it's going to be a tough train to derail. But it's a crazy, crazy country right now. But if I had to put money on it, I would say it would be Romney.
MCN: Obviously, you enjoy your job. Your contract is up at the end of this year?
O'Reilly: Yes, it's up at the end of the year.
MCN: How much longer do you see yourself doing this?
O'Reilly: We'll see what happens. That's another thing you really can't predict. I mean it's a matter of how I'm feeling physically and how the company sees my role going forward. And there's a whole bunch of stuff, so I have really no idea what's going to happen.