Who Bill O'Reilly
Current gig Anchor of the The O'Reilly Factor and executive producer of Legends & Lies
"I don't want to insult you," said Bill O'Reilly as I took a seat in his 17th-floor office late last month, "but I have to sign these plates. But my attention is going to be right on what you're saying."
O'Reilly has just finished taping his nightly show (Donald Trump was a guest), and now he's back in his corner office promoting his top-rated Fox News weekend show, Legends & Lies, while using the time to autograph hundreds of pages for his forthcoming Killing the Rising Sun—the sixth book in the Killing series—about the final months of World War II in the Pacific. Barnes & Noble book signings do not happen in Bill O'Reilly's world. There are more than 12 million Killing books in circulation. "First run on Rising Sun is a million and a half," O'Reilly said proudly. "Costco alone took 400,000."
But this is just one aspect of the Bill O'Reilly empire. The history buff turned his passion into a best-selling business that has spawned film adaptations and a Fox News historical series that O'Reilly appears in and executive produces.
Adweek: Legends & Lies is in its second season. What's your role as executive producer?
Bill O'Reilly: I go over the outline of the series in the beginning with [production company] Warm Springs and I say, "Look, this is what we're going to do." They get a writer who whips up the script and then it comes to me. It's the same thing on the movies—I just got back from the Killing Reagan set … I went down and talked to Rod Lurie, the director, and said, "Look, are you guys going to depart from the script?" And they said a few places and we sit down and talk about it. So that's what the executive producer does.
Legends & Lies opens with a slate that says, "News is the first draft of history … but legends take longer to develop." Who, living today, will be written about in 100 years and be considered a legend of the early 21st century?
For sure Barack Obama. Certainly a legacy guy. A lot will be written about him. Good and bad. Trump maybe. If he wins, certainly. But even if he doesn't win, what he did was so extraordinary that people will be looking at it. Hillary Clinton. I'm not sure. Bill Clinton. Not sure. George Bush the younger, probably not.
Season 1 focused on the Wild West and Season 2 highlights the patriots. Where do you want to take Season 3?
Already sketched it out?
Already sketched it out. Ken Burns did it so well—you just can't top Ken Burns. So I'm not even going to try. What we're going to do is find stories that haven't been told.
You've covered your share of political conventions. Are these two going to be like anything you've seen before?
I think it's going to be boring.
Because there's no drama. Hillary's going to get up there and she's going to be coronated. Maybe there'll be some Bernie fans. And he'll get his night to speak. I don't see any drama there. Other than vp, which I think is going to be an electoral college move rather than an ideological move. But I could be wrong on that. Then on the Republican side, vp is the story.
You don't expect any floor fights? What about the Republicans who aren't going?
So what? Who cares? Does anybody care that John McCain's not going to the convention? I don't think so. Mitt Romney? Trump supporters don't like them.
The two former living Republican presidents not going?
I just don't see it being a big deal. Trump supporters who are going to the convention are going because they like Trump. They don't care if those other guys are there or not.
If it's going to be boring, how's Bill O'Reilly going to make interesting TV?
I'm going to try to find the scene, like [Clint] Eastwood and the [Mitt] Romney deal and see if there's any craziness. Trump said to me, "I think I might speak every night." I said, "Do you have to (laughs)?" At least when Trump speaks, you can get some news out of it.
You've been friends since 1990?
Yeah. A long time.
Are you surprised he got this far?
Yeah. That and the assassination of John Kennedy are the most stunning political things in my lifetime. When he told me he was going to run for president last year, I said, "What country?" (laughs) But you have to give him credit. Like him or not. I don't like some of the things he does and says. But I admire the fact that he was able to beat the establishment and beat them badly.
What don't we know about your friendship with him?
Not much. It's built on sports. We're both sports fans and New York fans. I don't hang with Donald Trump. We go to some games together and once in a while, when he wasn't a politician, when he needed a favor or something, I would be happy to do it for him—if he had some kid who wanted to come and see the show.
The networks were criticized for too much Trump coverage during the primary. Do you think all of that free cable airtime got him to where he is today?
No. I think he used it, and very shrewdly created news, saying things that got him attention like he did in the tabloid press when he was just a businessman. So I think he had to convince people to support him over Rubio and over Cruz. And he did. Simple as that
Who are some journalists you admire?
They're all dead. I mean Mike Wallace, at the end of his life, he was a close friend of mine. Tom Snyder. I've never seen a guy better on camera than Tom Snyder. Peter Jennings was a friend when I was working at ABC. And they're all dead, so that means I'm old.
And which TV news broadcasts do you watch?
I watch them all. I watch them for information flow. 60 Minutes is the best. How they do it every week, it's so good. I don't think people understand how good they are.
Did you ever want to work for them?
Yeah. I was thinking about it. But I don't want to be on the road. At one point, I was thinking about doing a commentary, when Andy Rooney had left. But I'm a little bit too bombastic for that. I watch all the other news shows. I watch for the news and who's on it rather than style or anything like that.
Your colleague, Megyn Kelly, had her first show on Fox broadcast. Is that something you'd like to do?
We did it. We did five or six specials for Fox broadcast, seven or eight years ago. They were very successful, very fun to do. But they took way too much time. And this has got to be my main situation. To stay on top for almost 16 years—it's not easy.
And still growing your audience.
Well, it's a presidential year, so I don't think anyone should get too excited about it.
But you've grown your audience from other presidential years.
Yes. But we've grown it through the books and other late-night appearances on TV shows, and so people who don't watch cable news now know who I am.
Who didn't know who Bill O'Reilly was?
You know, you look at the Q ratings, and they're very high now. But it took a while for that to happen.
And you think it was the books.
I think the books helped. I mean, you sell 12 million books and people don't watch the TV show; they read the books. So the synergy … and the movies help too. The movies have been enormous successes, and what they write about me on the internet is not true.
What do they write about you on the internet?
You know that I'm an ideological fanatic. Someone called me a right-wing reactionary the other day. That kind of crap that comes out of that sewer with the agendas they have.
Do you think you're a good listener?
Do I think what?
Do you think you're a good listener?
It depends who's talking. You know I could sum up what's happening pretty quickly. So if I don't see A) specifics, B) they're answering the question being asked, then I'm going in getting them over to where I want them. Because people's concentration spans are very short. It's not like it used to be.
Why do you think that changed?
Because of these machines (holds up smartphone). So it's pure action on the machines every second, but that's not what life's all about. So you have to kind of move it along fast. I remember talking to my staff when we first started, and I said, "Look, we're gonna beat Larry King." And they go, "He's so far ahead," and I said, "No, we're gonna beat him because he's too slow."
So you understood that in 1996?
As soon as I got in here, I understood it. He was No. 1. I didn't really worry about anyone but No. 1, and I looked at his show, and I looked at what he's doing and … it's a changing world. Our show is fast. And if you watch our show, it's fast.
You've been No. 1 for 16 years. You're going to be 67 this year. How much longer do you want to do a nightly TV show?
I don't know. I go day to day. I don't want to work this hard much longer. I know that. Because I work hard. I earn my money. But the shocking thing to me is nobody beats me. These young gunslingers, they should be kind of beating me—but they're not.
So who's the next Bill O'Reilly?
I don't wish that on anyone. I think everybody has their own unique presentation. There will be somebody that comes. But it's not as easy as it looks.
This story first appeared in the July 11, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.