Bill O'Reilly Inc. touched down in Los Angeles on Feb. 15 for a whirlwind week that would have fatigued most hard-driving CEOs. The acerbic 53-year-old Fox News Channel (FOX) commentator chaired a benefit for Israel that raised $40 million, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and ate dinner at Hollywood hot spot the Ivy with his boss, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox News parent News Corp., (NWS) and Murdoch's wife, Wendi -- all the while doing his radio and TV show every day.
He also took in a screening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, interviewed Gibson the next day, taped appearances on Fox's MADtv show and Fox Sports' Best Damn Sports Show, did a Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS) book signing for his best-seller Who's Looking Out for You?, and delivered a speech at a forum sponsored by radio station KABC, which broadcasts his show. He capped off the week by interviewing Swamp Thing and HBO series Carnivale star Adrienne Barbeau for a quick segment on his TV show. "It's mania, sheer mania when I'm on the West Coast," says O'Reilly, the son of a Long Island accountant.
Love him or hate him, O'Reilly has done a masterful job of using the groundswell of support for his conservative views to build himself into a multimedia brand. For enduring that kind of pace, O'Reilly is reaping the rewards and helping lots of other media outlets cash in on his popularity as well. Sweep in TV, radio, books, newspapers, and the Internet, and O'Reilly generates an estimated $60 million a year for his outlets through ad and books sales, syndication fees, and merchandise sales. "Bill is one of our cherished marquee authors," says Stephen Rubin, president of Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, a unit of Random House Inc. that has published four of O'Reilly's works. "It doesn't hurt that he shamelessly promotes his books." His latest tome has sold 644,000 copies since it was released last year, according to sales tracker Nielsen BookScan.
A heated political year is almost certain to keep O'Reilly's fortunes growing, but can the commentator, who once hosted the tabloid news show Inside Edition, keep up this explosive run for the long term? "He's popular because he is a renegade, a bit of a rebel," says Simon Williams, CEO of brand consultant Sterling Group. "But like any celebrity brand in which you can rapidly emerge and then rapidly decline, I would focus, if I were him, on sustainability rather than popularity." O'Reilly admits he thinks about oversaturation. But he says he will be in demand as long as he keeps raging on behalf of America -- he lambastes liberal media elites, predatory priests, Hillary Clinton, corrupt CEOs, illegal aliens, and "racial witch-hunters" who hijack policy debates with charges of racism. O'Reilly gets peeved when he's labeled a right-winger, noting that he opposes the death penalty and supports gay marriage. He recently apologized for often repeating President Bush's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
HANDS-ON APPROACH. Advertisers have not shied away from his caustic views -- General Motors Corp. (GM) and SBC Communications Inc. (SBC) are big spenders -- maybe in large part because 31% of his viewers age 25 to 54 make more than $100,000 a year, says Fox. His nightly The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News is one of the most watched shows on cable, attracting an average of 2.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. CNN's (TWX) Larry King Live, by contrast, draws an average of 1.3 million.) Advertisers have been lining up for O'Reilly, doubling their spending, to nearly $30 million a year (about $12,000 for a 30-second spot) since 2000, says Paul Rittenberg, Fox News's senior vice-president for sales. "We see no resistance to Bill in the ad community," says Rittenberg. "He's edgy and pushy, but in a good way."
O'Reilly rakes in the dough on radio, too. "Rush Limbaugh might do three times the ad revenues for a three-hour show, after 25 years on the air, but with his two-hour show, Bill is one of the fastest-growing programs on radio," says Peter Kosann, president of ad sales at Westwood One Inc. (WON), which syndicates O'Reilly's radio show to 400 stations nationwide.
O'Reilly has created three separate corporations to handle his business affairs -- one each for TV, radio, and his Web site, billoreilly.com. He has about 25 people working for him, but he prides himself on being hands-on, writing his own TV-show scripts, speeches, newspaper column, and books. It's not as if he can't afford some help. His Fox contract pays him $4 million a year, still less than half what broadcast anchors make, according to industry sources. He is estimated to earn tens of millions of dollars more on his books and Web site. He accepts one speaking gig a month at an estimated $50,000 to $70,000 per appearance. He says he gives a lot of his loot to charities, including Families of Military Casualties. "I'm not a materialistic person. I wasn't born with that gene," says O'Reilly.
So what's next? O'Reilly, who has a wife and two daughters, is looking to spread his message of self-reliance to another generation. He says a kids' book, The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: A Survival Guide, is set to be published in October by Harper Collins, owned by Fox parent News Corp. In just seven years since joining Fox News at its launch, O'Reilly has become a national presence. "Where I am now is where I should be," he responds when asked about any larger ambitions. And that's just fine with the slew of companies riding the O'Reilly wave. By Tom Lowry in New York