As a liberal leaning law professor, I thought it might be a good idea (for my career, not my blood pressure) to watch Bill O'Reilly over an extended period of time and see what all the fuss is about. I watched for a couple of weeks until Wednesday, November 28, when O'Reilly called the head of an atheist organization who was unlucky enough to be sitting right next to him a "fascist." This insult preceded O'Reilly decrying the War on Christmas and arguing there is absolutely nothing "Christian" about "Christmas" trees. The scene (and the prior shows) reminded me of professional wrestling and this essay was born.
1. Bill O'Reilly is a 60ish tall white male who plays a character called "Bill O'Reilly," who bullies people on the air to make a living or pays other people to bully people on the air to make a living.
Vince McMahon (The owner of the WWE) is a 60ish tall white male who plays a character called "Mr. McMahon" who pretends to bully people on the air to make a living or pays other people to pretend they are bullying people on the air to make a living.
2. Both "The Factor," and numerous WWE shows, follow the same format to hook their audiences. O'Reilly starts by reading an opinionated set of talking points. This is done matter-of-factly so as not to arouse his audience too quickly.
Most wrestling matches begin with one of the wrestlers coming out to the ring holding a microphone, and calmly stating his beef with his soon to be opponent. This unfolds slowly building to a crescendo of emotion so as not to arouse the audience too quickly.
3. Both the Factor and the WWE rely on a predictable set of characters acting exactly as the audience expects. On "The Factor," Dennis Miller will appear for his weekly monologues of bizarre references, humor, and exasperation, while Charles Krauthammer will appear wise beyond his many, many years almost whispering the anachronistic pearls of 1950s wisdom he drops slowly and calmly, as if we should pay a buck for every word. The formats of these diatribes are meant to complement each other and provide a rhythm to the show.
Similarly, in the WWE, there are good guys and bad guys who the audience knows will act in preordained ways meant to look spontaneous. Although the actors on "The Factor" and the actor/athletes in the ring act out preconceived plot twists, there is also a significant amount of improvisation which takes significant talent. It is crucial to the enterprise of both, however, that the improvisation does not detract from the central messages of O'Reilly and McMahon.
4. Both "The Factor" and the WWE know that ratings soar when women are mostly blonde, busty, and provocatively dressed. Compare Meghan Kelly, Dana Perino, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, with the Divas of the WWE. The resemblances are striking. Enough said.
5. Both "The Factor" and the WWE rely on an adversarial interview format to build their audiences. Once or twice a show O'Reilly will interview an adversary (such as the aforementioned president of the atheist association) and eventually bully him with righteous indignation and even name calling, and prior to almost every WWE match there is the spectacle of two alleged warriors yelling insults and life stories at each other to fire up the crowd.
6. Both "The Factor" and the WWE are incredibly lucrative. For the week ending November 25, 2012, the WWE had three of the top eleven highest rated cable shows, a regular occurrence. "The Factor" is, of course, as Mr. O'Reilly seems to mention almost every night, the highest rated "news" show on television, by far.
7. Finally, the explanation for number 6, is that when good writers prepare scripts for good looking actors and the entire point of the presentation is to provide an effective illusion, expect good results. For the WWE, the illusion is that the men and women in the ring are really fighting and actually hate each other. Neither is true but that does not detract from the brilliance of the spectacle. Hamlet isn't really a troubled young man but we are willing to suspend disbelief for the entire play.
Similarly, Mr. O'Reilly announces at the beginning of every show that those watching are entering the "No Spin Zone." That is a patently false claim. Everything about "The Factor" is spin, spin and more spin. Republicans are almost always right, Democrats almost always wrong, the "mainstream media" always slanders conservatives, big government is bad, small government is good unless we're talking about abortion and same-sex marriage, taxes are bad and entitlements are bad unless we're talking about the low capital gains tax or the entitlements received by most of America's large corporations, and so on. What is truly amazing about "The Factor" and the WWE is their ability to bring their illusions close enough to reality so that millions of Americans find each show entertaining enough to suspend belief for one or two hours.
Alas, there is one significant difference. The WWE bills itself as producing shows and admits its matches are entertainment not sport. The Factor bills itself as "news," though of course it is really a look at world events though Mr. O'Reilly's strongly held preconceived notions of right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral.
Recently, Mr. O'Reilly has been ranting about the War on Christmas but at no time has he discussed the difference between people worshipping as they please and the government spending taxpayer money on a few favored religions. As a constitutional law professor, I have to admit the issues surrounding religious symbols on government property are complex and reasonable people can disagree on how such issues should be resolved. But you would never learn that from watching Mr. O'Reilly's "The Factor." Just as, if you want to really learn how to fight, or even just want to watch a true fight, you won't learn anything by watching the WWE.