Bill O'Reilly likes a fight, and his ratings show it

Bill O'Reilly's claims under scrutiny
Bill O'Reilly's claims under scrutiny

Are Bill O'Reilly's ratings up because of the controversy about discrepancies in his past reporting?

It sure looks that way to me.

On Wednesday night, O'Reilly averaged 705,000 viewers ages 25 to 54 -- up more than 35% from his year-to-date average of 516,000.

In fact, according to Fox, Wednesday's "O'Reilly Factor" was the highest-rated edition since November 24, the night of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, when millions of people sought out cable news coverage.

For O'Reilly's fans, the ratings are a point of pride: They say criticism of his reporting record is only making him stronger, at least in the short term.

Over the long term, however, Fox has a lot on the line if there's any lasting damage to O'Reilly's credibility.

O'Reilly has been the highest-rated host on Fox News for over a decade. Since Fox is rated higher than CNN (the owner of this web site) and MSNBC, O'Reilly is the biggest star on cable news overall.

I look at the ratings for Fox, CNN and MSNBC every day. Even before Mother Jones began poking holes in O'Reilly's reporting this time last week, O'Reilly was having a blockbuster month, sometimes drawing more than 600,000 viewers in the demo. (The 25- to 54-year-old demographic is the currency for buying and selling ads on cable news channels.)

For example, take February 18, before the controversy began: O'Reilly's lead-in at 7 p.m., "On The Record with Greta Van Susteren," had 324,000 viewers in the demo. Right at 8 p.m., when O'Reilly came on, he gained an additional 200,000. Among total viewers, he added 1 million at the start of his hour.

For a television executive, that is the Holy Grail -- true appointment television.

The rest of Fox's prime time lineup is fueled by O'Reilly's strength in the 8 p.m. hour.

So what was fueling O'Reilly before the embellishment controversy? Probably the news cycle: O'Reilly has been concentrating on the barbarity of ISIS and his belief that the Obama administration is not doing enough to confront it. He got attention 10 days ago for saying "the holy war is here."

Related: Bill O'Reilly rips Mother Jones again

Now he's getting attention for a very different reason: His apparent exaggerations about covering stories like the 1982 Falklands War. (If you're not caught up, here's a summary of the stories.)

On Monday's show, O'Reilly defended himself and said "I want to stop this now." That night, he averaged 568,000 in the demo and more than 3.3 million total viewers.

Since Monday, he hasn't directly talked about the ongoing controversy on his show.

I couldn't help but wonder, however, whether his remarks about President Obama on Tuesday night -- "smearing anyone should be unacceptable," he declared -- had a double meaning. He averaged 557,000 viewers in the demo that night.

O'Reilly has portrayed the scrutiny of his past reporting as an attack by liberal Fox-haters. And his audience seems to be relishing the fight.

Fox declined to comment for this story, preferring to let the ratings speak for themselves.

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