Without missing a beat, blustery conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly returned to the microphone Monday night — just as his former shop, Fox News Channel, was introducing its O’Reilly-free schedule.
O’Reilly’s first appearance since being fired last week by Fox News’ parent company was not on television — where he inhabited the most prominent perch in cable TV for the better part of 20 years — but an audio podcast made available through his eponymous website.
“I am sad that I’m not on television any more,” a somewhat subdued O’Reilly told listeners who tuned in to his 19-minute “No Spin News” podcast. “I was very surprised how it all turned out. I can’t say a lot because there’s much stuff going on right now.”
O’Reilly promised that fans who sign up for his subscription service would eventually learn his side of the sexual harassment scandal that derailed his Fox News career.
“I’m very confident the truth will come out,” he said. “I don’t know if you’re going to be surprised — but I think you’re going to be shaken as I am.”
O’Reilly’s “No Spin News” columns have been a regular feature on his website since 2009. But on Monday, O’Reilly and his team put added emphasis on his newly launched daily podcast. The first installment is being offered free for several days.
The episodes eventually will grow in length, O’Reilly said, and evolve into a “genuine news program” for subscribers who agree to pay $4.95 a month or $49.95 for an annual “premium membership.”
To fill O’Reilly’s longtime slot, Fox News on Monday shifted its rising star Tucker Carlson to 8 p.m. Eastern time. He launched “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in the new time period with an interview of Caitlyn Jenner.
Fox News shifted “The Five” to 9 p.m. to fill the vacancy left by Carlson’s move.
O’Reilly is not the first personality to try to capitalize on his popularity with a direct-to-consumer media offering.
Former Fox News host Glenn Beck launched the Blaze network in 2011, which attracted a large following before losing some of its steam. Comedian Adam Carolla, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, former ESPN radio star Colin Cowherd (now affiliated with Fox Sports) and former HLN star Nancy Grace also produce podcasts to connect with longtime followers — and to attract new listeners.
O’Reilly hasn’t detailed his other post-Fox News plans. The 67-year-old author and former history teacher is well positioned to reach a substantial audience through the podcasts, several experts said.
“What it takes is a distinct point of view and a passionate audience — and he has both,” said Hernan Lopez, founder and chief executive of the Wondery, a podcast network.
O’Reilly and other big personalities have an advantage over upstart podcast producers because they have name recognition and a built-in audience.
“We’ve learned that talent can really be their own networks if they are big enough,” said Christopher Balfe, who helped launch the Blaze and is now CEO of Red Seat Ventures, a 2-year-old firm that works with personalities such as Cowherd and Grace.
Balfe said the payoff in the on-demand media world can be big but it takes more than name-recognition to be successful.
“It’s not enough to have viewers — you have to have fans,” Balfe said.
One challenge will be converting longtime Fox watchers to O’Reilly’s new format. Podcasting attracts a younger audience — the median age of a podcast listener is about 35, Lopez said. The median age for O’Reilly’s cable audience was 67, according to ratings firm Nielsen.
Podcasting is one of the fastest-growing media platforms. An estimated 24% of Americans over the age of 12 have listened to a podcast in the last month, up from 12% in 2010, according to a study this year by Edison Research. In a sense, it is an extension of how millennials prefer to watch TV — on-demand, often through a streaming service such as Hulu or Netflix.
Perhaps recognizing the challenge of getting cable watchers to pay another subscription, O’Reilly suggested Monday that a premium membership makes “great Father’s and Mother’s Day gifts.”
Even if he is ultimately successful, O’Reilly probably will find that his podcast audience will be a fraction of the size of the crowd that faithfully tuned into “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News, which this year had been averaging about 4 million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen.
“As we saw with the failure of the Sarah Palin Channel, personality alone will not drive adoption,” said Glenn Hower, senior research analyst of the Dallas media consulting firm Parks Associates.
21st Century Fox fired O’Reilly last week after media reports that he and Fox, over the years, had paid large settlements to several women who claimed O’Reilly sexually harassed them.
Pressure rose when radio personality Wendy Walsh alleged that O’Reilly promised to bring her onto his show but lost interest after she rebuffed his sexual advances. O’Reilly has said the claims are unfounded, but they spooked Fox News advertisers.
More than a dozen advertisers pulled their commercials from “The O’Reilly Factor,” putting Rupert Murdoch and his two sons, who control Fox parent 21st Century Fox, in a difficult position. They fired O’Reilly four days after bringing in a law firm to investigate the complaints against the network’s biggest star.
O’Reilly left Fox News with $25 million, the equivalent of one year’s salary, according to two people familiar with the terms of his exit.
Skittish sponsors probably will be less of an issue in podcasting than on a prominent TV network, the experts said.
“One major benefit of the subscription platform is that it removes the complication of sponsors and advertisers,” said Erik Diehn, chief executive of Midroll Media, a podcast network that works with stars such as comedian Marc Maron. “You don’t have to worry about something you said or did, and for somebody like Bill O’Reilly, that might be liberating.”
O’Reilly’s website, billoreilly.com, promises that subscribing to his premium service would provide a “direct pipeline” to the man and the chance to hear his “uncensored thoughts.”
In something of a dig at his former shop, O’Reilly’s website also instructs fans to “Remove ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ from your vocabulary.”
Spencer Brown, chief executive of podcast network DGital Media, said O’Reilly’s podcast is coming at a time when the industry is maturing rapidly — both in terms of slick content and the roster of advertisers now flocking to the medium.
But Brown, whose firm includes a stable of popular podcasts such as “Pod Save America,” said examples of successful subscription-based podcasts were few and far between.
Even the most successful podcasts bring in about $4 million to $5 million a year, according to one analyst — a different league than what O’Reilly is used to. His Fox News show generated hundreds of millions of dollars a year for Fox, which two months ago renewed O’Reilly’s contract, promising him a $25-million-a-year salary.