Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann are engaged in one of the most visible rivalries of the decade — a conflict that may be rooted more in their similarities than differences. Both talk show hosts are former straight news reporters who share not only a formula for talk-show success, but a mutual respect for Tom Snyder, whose 1970s talk show Tomorrow set the bar for thoughtful, entertaining talk. Olbermann and O'Reilly make our Players list for best epitomizing the transformation of news in the 2000s. While CNN ruled the '90s with an emphasis on breaking, opinion-free reports, The O'Reilly Factor helped Fox News become the cable news leader with a show that mixes reporting, reflection, and rampant editorializing. It's the same formula adopted by Olbermann's Countdown, which has led MSNBC's increased emphasis on opinion. Critics paint O'Reilly and Olbermann as blustery, cartoonish bloviators of the right and left, respectively, and take them to task for not playing it straight. But both men — among the influential television industry players interviewed for TVGuide.com's Best of the Decade section — would just say they speak the truth. Click here for our interview with Olbermann or read on for our talk with O'Reilly.
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TVGuide.com: Can you walk us through the evolution of your shows?
Bill O'Reilly: Look, every year has its own rhythm, and we've been on the air now for 13 years ... on top nine years consecutively. So there's two things in play: No. 1, you have to understand the rhythm of your time. We made our reputation in the Clinton impeachment years when the country was in turbulence and we took a very hard view; we were not anti-Clinton or anything like that, but we did a lot of strong commentary about what was fair, what wasn't fair. That got us attention. Then 9/11 happened and we were very, very bullish on getting al-Qaida, holding them responsible ... There is a new rhythm now with Barack Obama obviously. You also have to freshen your show, you have to change your show; you can't do the same show for 14 consecutive years. You've gotta look different, it's gotta sound different. And you just have to know when to make those moves. So what I've done is that I, in the last two years, have de-emphasized my role — although it may not seem that way, I have — and then brought on contributors, people like Dennis Miller, Brit Hume, John Stossel, Bernie Goldberg ...
TVGuide.com: How are things different now from the start of the decade?
O'Reilly: At the start of the decade, people came home from work and turned on the television; now, people come home from and turn on the PC. That's a tremendous, tremendous difference. All right? So now you have to basically run a program that is appointment viewing, that it's in their mind throughout the day that I want to watch The O'Reilly Factor ... No longer will people just turn the TV on and cruise around, because of the PCs. So the competition level from the machines has changed everything.
TVGuide.com: What do you anticipate about the end of the next decade?
O'Reilly: The machinery is getting so intense that you're gonna have handheld devices that are going to be able to tune into whatever you want to tune into. ... ... The changes in the technology are going to be even more profound in the next few years. ... But again the key to it is giving them something that they remember, they look forward to, that they want to see. And no matter what the technology is, we'll be available and the folks hopefully will want to see it.
Gallery: See who else made our Players list
TVGuide.com: What are you most and least proud of?
O'Reilly: The fact that we have not had to retract a story in 13 years. I've made mistakes, and we correct the mistakes quickly. But as far as our basic story lines — like we do a lot of enterprise reporting on bad judges, Jessica's Law, things like that — we have never had to retract a story ... We triple-check everything, we use our brain room here at Fox, everything has to be in stone before we put it on the air.
TVGuide.com: What are you least proud of?
O'Reilly: There have been some times when I've gone over the line. I mean I walk a tightrope out there, I don't bring questions out. I'm an interviewer who goes on instinct ... But I don't beat myself up over it. I think the audience understands what kind of program it is. I've never done anything untoward. And if we do insult a guest or the guest isn't treated fairly, we'll bring the guest right back. So we do want to be a fair program, and I think that's the way we're perceived by most people.
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TVGuide.com: Do you have any advice for others in the business?
O'Reilly: Well, look, it's a different business now than it was. Shrinking. Local news isn't what it used to be. Salaries aren't what they used to be. So you got to really be dedicated. I think the people who come into the business now have got to develop a style that's kind of unique; you just can't be like part of the herd and expect to advance. But it's a fun career. ... I think travel and reading and all of that enhances anybody's television news career — the more you know, the better you are.
O'Reilly: I worked closely with Peter Jennings when I was a correspondent at ABC News and learned a lot about how to present yourself on camera from him. I always enjoyed Howard Cosell's ability to stir the pot when he was doing Monday Night Football, so I watched him closely. And in the beginning of my career, I watched Tom Snyder who was a local anchorman here in New York before he did the Tomorrow show. And again his persona and the way he presented himself made an impression on me. So, I'd say those three guys.
TVGuide.com: What do you watch now?
O'Reilly: I have to read a tremendous amount of material, so when I go home I have homework. ... Once in a while I'll dial into something. But there isn't any program on right now that I say, I got to watch this every week. There isn't anything. ... Once in a while I'll watch a special of some kind. I'll watch the History channel. And then I watch sports. But entertainment programs, not so much.
TVGuide.com: Anything you wish you were involved in?
O'Reilly: No, you know, I'm pretty happy with my career. I did the local thing, and then I did the network news correspondent thing. I did Inside Edition ... and made that a success. And now I've designed this program and I run the operation over here, and it's gratifying to be on top. We're icons now. It's amazing.