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.