The Audience Factor

by: Melissa Crawley / Lingnan University, Hong Kong

IN ADDITION TO OUR REGULAR COLUMNISTS AND GUEST COLUMNS, FLOW IS ALSO COMMITTED TO PUBLISHING TIMELY ONE-TIME COLUMNS, SUCH AS THE ONE BELOW.

On The O’Reilly Factor on The Fox News Channel, host Bill O’Reilly introduces topics highlighted by recent news stories and spars with guests who represent each side of the issue. Under the program moniker the ‘no spin zone,’ O’Reilly prides himself on being a tough interviewer who refuses to let guests strategically stray from answering questions. His direct interviewing style and I’m-just-looking-out-for-the-folks attempt at audience bonding has made The Factor the highest rated cable news show. Equally admired and reviled, O’Reilly has earned a celebrity status that is strengthened by his nightly performance as a broadcast journalist.

In his work on television news, Robert Stam (2000) suggests that the work of newscasters entails “a kind of acting” (365). While not a conventional news anchor, O’Reilly makes a claim to representing the ‘truth’ of the news by reporting and investigating contemporary social and political issues. However, rather than the “minimalist” style of news acting that “implies the presence and denial of normal human emotions and responses” (Stam 365-66), O’Reilly is passionately engaged. He argues, he interrupts, he dramatically declares that it’s all ridiculous. In his non-neutrality, he invites the audience to love him or hate him. With this style, he has achieved a level of celebrity surpassing his status as a cable news personality. He appears on talk shows, is parodied in comedy sketches and has public battles with Al Franken. His personal approach to debate is as much the subject of viewers’ emails as the issues that he covers.

O’Reilly’s status as celebrity and broadcast journalist creates a unique position for his audience. He is a commodity for Fox News and a performer who has fans, but he is also a journalist who seeks out the subjects behind the headlines, engages with topical issues and invites dialogue with the public. In the context of daily news, O’Reilly creates an intimacy with the viewer that is seductively interactive. Like a news anchor, he “simulates communication” (Stam 375). On both his show and his website, he engages in dialogue that appears reciprocal. For example, in 2002 he called for Factor viewers to “punish” Pepsi for signing rapper Ludacris as a spokesperson. O’Reilly’s segment on the rapper’s controversial lyrics left little doubt over his position: “I’m calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse and does all the things that hurt the poor in our society” (August 27, 2002). The next day, he reported that Ludacris had been fired “because of pressure by Factor viewers” (August 28, 2002). Pepsi’s reaction was cast as the direct result of O’Reilly’s relationship with his viewers. He personalized an issue and they responded to him.

The ‘dialogue’ between O’Reilly and his audience continues on the internet. On www.billoreilly.com, he sells hats, tote bags, t-shirts and civic engagement. For a monthly or yearly price ‘premium members’ can go to a Petitions section which recognizes that “our society is plagued by a lack of accountability” and wants “to help encourage more effective use of your trust and tax dollars.” Like the show, the website encourages a level of civic involvement that raises important questions about the position of The Factor’s audience. If a viewer boycotts Pepsi and buys O’Reilly’s latest book are they expressing political activism or fandom? Must the two identities remain separate or can you be outraged over consumer spending habits and still buy the ‘no spin zone’ doormat?

The position of The Factor audience becomes more complicated in light of the recent claim against O’Reilly for sexual harassment. In a suit filed October 13, a producer alleges that O’Reilly repeatedly subjected her to phone sex and lewd monologues. In an interesting twist, O’Reilly sued the producer and her lawyer first, claiming that their efforts to extort money were a politically motivated attempt to damage both him and Fox News. While the case raises interesting questions for a news network that is often accused of being biased toward the Republican party yet consistently proclaims to be ‘fair and balanced,’ I am interested in how the revelations over O’Reilly’s personal misconduct highlight his dual role as celebrity/journalist and further complicate the position of his audience.

When the story broke, O’Reilly addressed it in the opening ‘talking points’ segment of his show. With the graphic behind him headlined ‘treacherous times,’ he announced the filing of his lawsuit, called the case “the single most evil thing I have ever experienced” and declared “there comes a time when enough is enough” (October 13, 2004). The day after the allegations surfaced, O’Reilly appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly. Promoting his recent children’s book, he briefly discussed the case, noting that his rising popularity over the last several years had made him a target for lawsuits and threats of bodily harm. He told the hosts: “I’m going to take a stand. I’m a big mouth on the air and I’m a big mouth off the air.”

O’Reilly’s self-characterization suggests an element of non-performance that is an important part of his appeal. In claiming to be the same person on and off the air, he implies an on-screen reality that surpasses representation and reaches ‘truth.’ Because his news analysis largely reflects his personal convictions, this apparent openness assists his credibility and connection with his audience. When O’Reilly equates his public image with his personal image and declares that he is ‘looking out for you,’ his advocacy is personal. His declaration is believable because his media performance seems to be a natural extension of his private self. The exposure of his private life disrupts this balance and exposes the cracks in the performance. Suddenly his moral take on issues such as the sexualized nature of rap lyrics reveals a constructed falseness.

Yet, The Factor’s audience rose 34 percent the day after the sexual harassment story broke (Hoheb 2004). While the temporary increase may be the result of curiosity, the show has maintained its average audience of 2.4 million viewers, suggesting that his media strategy is working. His tough response to a personal crisis is consistent with his brash public image, suggesting that he is somehow authentic in his fall from grace. He is successfully performing himself. Additionally, audiences accustomed to scandalous revelations about public figures might be likely to accept his alleged indiscretions as a temporary disruption to his image rather than a permanent alteration. How they are positioned as active viewers of a news text is more problematic.

Stam argues that part of the pleasure of watching television news is the “sense of visual power” that creates an “all-perceiving” spectator (362). Watching events unfold, the viewer becomes a witness who is both part of a larger collective and separate from it. The O’Reilly Factor gives audiences the choice to transform visual power into civic action, but does his celebrity cloud the discourse? With the scandal surrounding the sexual harassment lawsuit, has O’Reilly damaged his performance enough to affect the potential of his audience? Rather than civic dialogue and debate, the pleasure of The Factor’s audience may now be reduced to searching for the hidden subtext that reveals the ‘true’ Bill in the nightly role play.

Links
Bill O’Reilly’s homepage
Fox News Channel
Random House, Inc. author homepage
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on O’Reilly case
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on Fox News Channel & NewsCorp
The Smoking Gun’s archive, copy of letter of intent to sue Fox News

Please feel free to comment.

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8 comments

  • One aspect of Bill O’Reilly I find interesting is his ability to conjure up what might be called anti-fandom. While his fans might be likely to buy his merchandise, those who hate him might also be likely to buy anti-O’Reilly paraphernalia. In this sense, the recent allegations against O’Reilly put the anti-fan in a unique position. Those who dislike him might rejoice at the trouble this will cause, however, is the anti-fan to be pleased that O’Reilly subjected a woman to harassment if it ends his career?

  • Bill O’Reilly isn’t worthy for discussion as a News Personailty

    O’Reilly’s faux anchoring violates every single standard of journalism. He does no substantive reporting, his discourse with his guests is lop sided and he consistently employs third rate straw man tactics. The fundamental problem isn’t so much that he’s Conservative its the fact that he’s blurred the lines between journalism and entertainment. I suppose its naive of me to even suggest such a line even exist, but to some degree it must, and O’Rielly completely crosses that line. He, and other Fox News personalities have skewed that line so well the viewers often times accept opinion as fact(Al Gore claimed he invented the Internet, Kerry’s views on Iraq are inconsistent). Viewers see it as nothing more than plain spoken fact, mistaking nuance as equivocation. Fox is nothing more than political pornography set on sensationalizing the trivial and ignoring the important world events to further an agenda. The celebrity of Bill O’Rielly is merely an extension of that ideology, hopefully fox news will go the way of The New York Post (owned by News Corp as well) and become a joke of journalism not even worth discussing or seen as relevant.

  • Bill O’Reilly’s Viewers

    Bill O’Reilly has “blurred the lines between journalism and entertainment.” Issues examined on The “O’Reilly Factor” tend to be overwhelmingly one-sided and will only invite a guest with opposing viewpoints in order to bash him. This would be acceptable if the show was for entertainment purposes, but it is intended to be an outlet for real news. O’Reilly has the audacity to tell Jon Stewart that the Daily Show is frightening because it influences stoned slackers on how to vote, when in fact, the Daily Show acknowledges that they present the fake news and according to recent polls, it is more likely for college graduates to watch the “Daily Show” than “The O’Reilly Factor”. For any legitimate news show to capitalize on merchandizing is shameless. It is about time that there is a substantial amount of finger pointing at O’Reilly, even if it took a potentially fake accusation to bring it out.

  • O’ Reilly Factor?

    Bill O Reilly is just like a so called “shock jock” on the radio. The purpose of his show is not to report news but to “stir up” america with his ultra conservative and elitist views on american pop culture. His relationship with his viewing audience is mearly a byproduct of the audience he is trying to reach. If you can reach that fanatic audience they will always produce as loyal viewer who are willing to do anything. These people are amazing the more crap you pump out to them the more they lap it up.

  • Tell me about the issues, but promise not to bore me.

    The fact that the Factor is the highest rated news’s show is a reflection of the widespread nature of sensationalism; it is the pivot around which our media tries to frame the “news”. People are just too bored to watch normal people talk and have an ordinary debate. In this age of ever increasing options and rapidly decreasing attention spans, news networks have to jazz up their news if they garner any hope of holding on to their audience. Reilly’s pseudo journalistic approach coupled with his self proclaimed mandate on the “truth”, and his no nonsense approach as the savior of the American public who deserve to know the facts is tailored around this flytrap ideology. Although the above phenomenon is not solely restricted to news media (the popping of “reality shows”), and not necessary signal a change in values, Reilly’s Factor is especially very dangerous as it clearly has an underlying political goal. His claims to fairness are laughable-any fair minded person who has watched the show can easily see through his attempts to give the opposition a “fair chance”. It is merely a forum to humiliate and disregard the “nonsensicality” of their argument. He has clearly exploited his image to further the ultra conservative ideology, and the commercialization of his image is appalling. It is clearly not a news show. But the sad truth of the matter is that the majority do not see it this way. They keep returning to him to satisfy their guilt of political apathy, and Bill delivers every time – by not boring them to death!

  • The power of O’rielly

    My grandparents are huge fans of “The Factor”. They watch not because they feel he’s looking out for them, but because they believe he is a paragon of all that a human being should be. It’s a true testament to the force of his on air personality. When the sexual harrasment suit came out, they dismissed it immediately as an attack on their hero. I think the man’s a joke, but the loyalty he generates is amazing.

  • cable news tabloid

    I’ve always thought of “The Factor” as the bastard step-child of The National Enquirer and Headline News. I used to watch the show regularly, but more as a rubbernecker-at-a-car-wreck than a fan. Not considering my personal beliefs to be aligned with the conservative ideology, viewing the show is almost a voyeuristic experience for me. It’s interesting to watch passionate people, regardless of what they’re passionate about. I think this is at the heart of his success; he inspires passion in others, whether it be for or against him. I view the show in the same way I do Jerry Springer… under the umbrella of absurdity. Sadly, many people buy into the “no spin zone” rhetoric and take the opinions on the show as hard fact, despite the glaring bias inherent in it. Excuse the generalization, but on the whole I think he attracts viewers that have the will to believe to begin with (in that they come to the show with an ideology similiar to the host and are looking for confirmation, not genuine exploration of the issues) and are therefore predisposed to accepting his arguments and distorted logic. It is much easier to win over someone’s mind via their heart than their reason.

  • Micah Sampson

    Fox News Sells O’Reilly

    When I take into consideration Mr. O’Reilly’s obvious lean to the right, I am still under the impression that he is one of the few television personalities that stands by his opinions and facts presented to the public. Do I think he has used his celebrity status to get what he wants? Yes, but look at Dan Rather in the latest Bush scandal. Do I think that he is playing a part? Of course, who on television is not? I believe that all television personalities keep a persona and wouldn’t limit it to just Fox News, because it is naive to believe that other news networks don’t contain the same viewer grabbing strategies. Fox just does it better than anybody else. That’s why ratings are high and people criticize it so much because it’s the best that cable has to offer. It may be bias and it may be unappealing to those who don’t lean towards conservative beliefs, but it is still the most well done news network on television. So no matter what scandal breaks it will remain the highest rated cable news network, because it contains all aspects of entertainment that audience members want. O’Reilly is only one personality on that network and might be the most recognizable face on Fox News, but the entire package that the channel offers sells O’Reilly.

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