Is Bill O’Reilly Passé?
A lot of ICN’s long winded blog posts, like this one is bound to be, usually start off with a simple thought or question and then grows exponentially in my head until my head can’t contain it anymore and it spills out through the keyboard on to the internet.
Case in point: A while back I thought to myself “When was the last time we had a really good Bill O’Reilly controversy?” The answer was I honestly couldn’t remember. It’s been that long. I suppose you could say O’Reilly’s appearance on The View that caused Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to storm off could be considered somewhat controversial though I think the more controversial aspects of that incident were Behar and Goldberg’s behavior than O’Reilly’s. Going back before that incident I can’t off the top of my head think of a good old fashioned Bill O’Reilly controversy in quite a while. It seems on the surface like Bill O’Reilly isn’t capable of generating controversies like he used to. Or, put another way, it seems like on the surface that Bill O’Reilly has become passé. But is he really?
The O’Reilly Factor continues to be the most popular cable news primetime show going. Its viewership levels continue to easily trounce its 8pm competition. And there are no signs of that situation changing for the foreseeable future. Clearly, from a ratings standpoint, the Bill O’Reilly program and brand aren’t passé.
But from a headline grabbing standpoint, O’Reilly doesn’t generate the ink he used to five years ago. Five years ago you could count on an O’Reilly headline somewhere about once every two weeks. Now you’re lucky to get one a month except on a few sites that write headlines about anything remotely newsworthy regardless of whether they are really headline worthy. I certainly don’t write about him like I used to and I’ve noticed similar patterns on other sites. This seems to suggest a “passé disconnect” phenomenon at work where O’Reilly’s show continues to draw big numbers while drawing comparatively little ink on the TV sites. Why has this happened? Well the short answer is a combination of things are at work which have had the cumulative effect of undermining the necessity of an O’Reilly related post.
For starters, O’Reilly’s time on the air is working against him now. His tenure as the King of Cable News primetime has made him something of a media establishment member. The days of the insurrectionally tinged “O’Reilly revolution” have long played themselves out. With nearly 15 years on the air, 8 books, and previously a nationwide syndicated radio program to his name, it’s growing increasingly difficult to argue that, on paper, O’Reilly is not part of the media establishment now. When one becomes as established as O’Reilly has the newness factor rubs clean off. Media writers love to write about new and different things. It becomes increasingly harder to add to the narrative as time goes by because you start repeating yourself.
Another contributor to the drying up of the O’Reilly inkwell is Keith Olbermann. His years long war on all things O’Reilly has poisoned the well. Olbermann would highlight every single gaffe or fleeting controversy that could be tangentially linked to O’Reilly. If everything gets put under the microscope it starts blurring together and eventually it reaches a point where it takes on the appearance of background noise. Oh…look Olbermann is railing about O’Reilly jaywalking. Zzzzzz. Well it’s not quite that bad but you get the point. Had Olbermann been a lot more picky about when to take on O’Reilly it would be a lot easier to get worked up over the latest “O’Reilly controversy”. Now, media writers tend to shrug their shoulders and say, “Eh…it’s O’Reilly being O’Reilly. Not worth the ink.” O’Reilly has become something of a caricature of himself to the writers, thanks in no small part to Olbermann. Olbermann should look long and hard at this because what happened to O’Reilly could eventually happen to him and he may eventually see his ink start drying up.
A third major contributor to the lack of O’Reilly media ink is the arrival of Glenn Beck to FNC. Beck and his antics have made O’Reilly’s shtick look passé by comparison. Beck took the focus off O’Reilly because Beck has more rage in his pinky finger than O’Reilly does in his entire body. Now the once big audacious O’Reilly controversies were being routinely dwarfed and rendered irrelevant by Beck’s even larger, more audacious controversies. If you’re a media writer and you have to choose between writing about Beck or O’Reilly, you’re going to write about Beck almost every time. Beck is gone from FNC now but the mark he left and the bar he raised is permanent. What used to pass for a controversy pre-Beck, doesn’t pass muster today.
And that didn’t impact just O’Reilly. It impacted everyone. Look at the increased hyperbolic rhetoric coming out of MSNBC these days. Ed Schultz says the GOP “wants to see you dead”. Mark Halperin calls the President “something of a dick”. To get noticed on cable news you have to be really outrageous now. Thanks Glenn.
O’Reilly will continue to be a force on cable news for as long as he wants to do it. But his days of regularly getting banner headlines are over. Whether that really amounts to being passé or not is hard to quantify because it depends on where you are in the ideological spectrum. For his most ardent fans and most vocal critics O’Reilly will never be considered passé. But for those who fall outside those polarized groups, O’Reilly just isn’t as interesting as he used to be. Those people have become acclimated to O’Reilly. It’s like being a drug addict. You have to keep getting a stronger and stronger fix to stay high. O’Reilly hasn’t kept up with the times of modern cable news rhetoric warfare as some of his counterparts have. So, in that sense, it could be argued that Bill O’Reilly really is passé.