Is Bill O'Reilly Plotting His Future in Digital or TV (or Both)?

Bill O'Reilly - Rock The Boat Fleet Week Kickoff Concert - Getty - H 2017
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The former Fox News top talent may be moving beyond podcasts to video by himself, but it's difficult to make an over-the-top network play work.

Bill O'Reilly is not likely to stay on the sidelines for long. But is the former king of the 8 p.m. hour at Fox News plotting his return as an aspiring digital media mogul like Glenn Beck, or is he holding out for a return to TV on a right-leaning network like Newsmax, One America News Network or Sinclair Broadcast Group?

In the near term, O'Reilly seems to be bolstering the growth of his owned and operated website, expanding from podcasts to potentially video. On Saturday, at the first stop on his “The Spin Stops Here” tour in Westbury, N.Y., O'Reilly said he is starting his own operation and announced that his team — which reportedly now includes a former Fox News producer — will experiment with a 30-minute-long newscast.

Guessing O'Reilly's next move has been a media industry parlor game for the last few months, since his ignominious departure from Fox News in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal.

Were he to launch a digital news program, the conventional wisdom is that he'd charge for content, as he's been doing with his "No Spin News" podcast. A monthly, all-access podcast membership goes for $4.95 and an annual membership for $49.95.

It's early, and O'Reilly isn't tipping his hand about what the newscast will be, though he said last weekend that it will look like his former O'Reilly Factor show. But those who have played in the OTT digital video space are willing to discuss what it takes to sell consumer subscriptions and to speculate on whether O'Reilly might be a good candidate.

"I've never seen a conservative talk show host run a business in my life," said The Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur, who predicted that O'Reilly will fail but said he'd welcome Bill "to the jungle." Added Uygur: "These guys who grew up on TV, they don't know how to compete in the jungle. They get everything handed to them on a silver platter."

Uygur compared a potential O'Reilly venture to the company Beck created after his own departure from Fox News in 2011. Beck paired with Christopher Balfe and Joel Cheatwood to start TheBlaze, a digital venture that might provide a playbook for O'ReillyBalfe and Cheatwood are now partners at Red Seat Ventures, a company that was launched in 2015 to help build businesses for content creators and media personalities, including former HLN star Nancy Grace.

Balfe and his partners hear from a lot of potential clients interested in starting an OTT service. But it's not right for everyone. "What we look for is people who have engaged fan bases where those fans are willing to jump through hoops to get that content," he said.

O'Reilly's fan base is nothing if not engaged, and Balfe said "he's in a great spot for this" if he wants to launch an OTT video offering. He predicted that such a business could do $25 million in annual revenue.

"If you're an individual talent and you have an audience like O'Reilly, you can build a nice-sized subscription business for that, and that can be a replacement for the pay check that you might have gotten from a traditional media company," said Balfe. "And in some cases, substantially more."

Media business analyst Ken Doctor acknowledged O'Reilly's massive audience, but said, "Given the age — in the '70s for median — it's asking a lot of them to access him through the computer, or phone, regularly."

Uygur was more blunt about about O'Reilly's Fox audience. "They could scarcely turn on a computer, let alone figure out how to do a subscription," he said.

Producing the necessary volume of content to make a service worth paying for is a lot of work, and may have been what sunk former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's subscription video service, the Sarah Palin Channel, after only one year. "Even if you're a name, you've got to produce tons and tons of content," said one digital media exec.

"You have to give them their money's worth," said Uygur.

While a bit bombastic, Uygur speaks from a place of experience. A left-leaning digital politics network, The Young Turks now has about 30,000 paying subscribers and generates in the neighborhood of $3.6 million in annual subscription revenue, he said.

Uygur said that if O'Reilly plans to launch such a business, he needs experienced partners. That was a common refrain among the media executives who discussed O'Reilly's ambitions with The Hollywood Reporter: that he might want to link up with a bigger company.

O'Reilly is used to having a massive audience at Fox News, and some said it might be tough for him to operate on a smaller scale, even if it would allow him to be his own boss. There's also the issue of cost: Hiring the staff to produce a network-quality broadcast takes a lot of money, though it's not clear if that's what he's aspiring to.

One media executive speculated that, in lieu of joining one company outright, O'Reilly might do a production deal with a network like Newsmax and then a distribution deal with a company like Sinclair, which will have an even larger footprint after acquiring Tribune Media's portfolio of local television stations.

O'Reilly, on Saturday, had hinted at a tie-up. "But I suspect there will be another network maybe merging with us," the executive said. "There will be a network that rises up, because the numbers for Fox are going down."