Would Bill O'Reilly's viewers follow him to a smaller network?

0
11

Bill O'Reilly. (Richard Drew/AP)

Bill O'Reilly is plotting the next phase of his comeback, according to the New York Post, which reports that the former Fox News Channel host is discussing a return to his 8 p.m. time slot, this time on Newsmax TV.

Don't get Newsmax TV? Most Americans don't, either. With a distribution of 50 million U.S. households, Newsmax TV reaches only about half the potential cable and satellite audience that O'Reilly's former employer does. In actual audience, the gap may be even wider. Fox News was the most-watched cable channel in the first quarter of the year, averaging 1.45 million viewers throughout the day; only five other channels claimed even half as many. A Nielsen spokesman said the ratings firm does not track Newsmax TV.

The question, then, is whether O'Reilly, who has been podcasting since his firing last year over sexual harassment allegations, is a big enough draw to make people watch a channel that few do now.

“Can he bring Newsmax TV to the next level?” asked Nicole Hemmer, a contributing opinion editor at U.S. News & World Report, and author of “Messengers From the Right,” a book about conservative media. “Newsmax TV isn't particularly well known, and none of its shows has much cachet. Perhaps bringing on Fox's former star could change that.”

The Newsmax website has outsize status in the media largely because of the friendship between the company's chief executive, Christopher Ruddy, and President Trump. Ruddy is often quoted by larger news outlets seeking insight into the president's thinking. Regular viewers of White House press briefings are familiar with Newsmax's John Gizzi, a human thesaurus with a deep voice and deliberate style of questioning that stands out in a frenzied room.

But Newsmax TV has not achieved even the modest goal Ruddy set before starting it in 2014. He told Bloomberg News at the time that the channel would be “hugely profitable” if it could merely “take 10 to 15 percent of the Fox audience.”

Hemmer said that in a deal between O'Reilly and Newsmax TV, “success would be making Newsmax TV a household name, like Fox is."

A number of conservative networks have attempted to make a play for the Fox News space, much like the bevy of talk radio shows that began between 2000 and 2002 were looking to copy the success of Rush Limbaugh — and many did. But a network is quite a different prospect: It requires multiple stars and much, much more money. So although there have been competitors such as OANN, Blaze TV and Newsmax TV, none has ever really broken through.

At a speaking event in New York last June, O'Reilly predicted, “There will be a network that rises up, because the numbers for Fox are going down.”

By some measures, Fox's numbers have gone down. In the first quarter of 2017, his last at Fox News, O'Reilly averaged 3.98 million viewers and had the top-rated show in cable news. In the first quarter of this year, O'Reilly's replacement at 8 p.m., Tucker Carlson, averaged 2.91 million viewers and ranked third.

Yet Fox News still boasts the No. 1 program in prime time, Sean Hannity's. The network continues to dominate cable news ratings overall, despite accusations of sexual harassment, including those lodged against O'Reilly, and discrimination lawsuits that its parent company recently settled for a combined $10 million.

It also is worth remembering that the first few months of the Trump presidency boosted cable news ratings across the board, which means it is probably an oversimplification to attribute a million-viewer decrease in the 8 o'clock hour solely to O'Reilly's absence.

Still, it's likely that some of the dip could be explained by viewers missing O'Reilly. Would those viewers follow him to Newsmax TV? When O'Reilly and Newsmax TV teamed up to cover Trump's State of the Union address in January, the telecast averaged only 11,000 viewers, according to Mediaite. More than 11 million tuned in to Fox News.

Hemmer said a nightly show, as opposed to a one-time special, would be “a good case study in how much Fox News made O'Reilly. He was the tent pole of the network for so long, but it seems to be doing fine without him.”