Bill O'Reilly on Why He'll Keep Making Historical Dramas
From 1950s newsreel documentaries about World War II battles like Victory at Sea, through the creation of the History channel in 1995, TV has often looked to the past. But in recent years, there’s been a resurgence of historical programs—AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies; HBO’s Lyndon B. Johnson movie All the Way; History’s Hatfields & McCoys, Texas Rising and the retelling of Roots; and National Geographic Channel’s movies based on Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling Killing series of books, including Killing Kennedy, Killing Lincoln and Killing Jesus.
The O’Reilly Factor host, a former history teacher, is also the executive producer of Fox News’ Legends & Lies. Season 2, Legends & Lies: Patriots, which premiered earlier this month, examines the stories of America’s founders. Here, O’Reilly explains why history is having an extended pop-culture moment.
By 2012, I had nine No. 1 books on contemporary issues [including The No Spin Zone and Culture Warrior], so when my publisher, HarperCollins, asked for a sequel to my semi-biography, A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity, I instead suggested entering the history realm. My writing partner, Martin Dugard, and I came up with the Killing series. Harper turned it down and Henry Holt & Company ended up publishing it. It became one of the bestselling nonfiction book series in the world.
I think many Americans, perhaps most, want to know about the history of their country. But in the past, history has been presented in a very dry way. You go to a bookstore and there’s 800 pages on James Polk and the U.S.–Mexican War. Nobody is going to read it. We want to make history fun to read and watch. We made the Killing TV movies so Americans can learn these compelling stories. I think that the success of the movies, starting with Killing Lincoln in 2013, encouraged more development of history projects. Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus all brought record numbers for the National Geographic Channel. Once Hollywood saw that there was an audience for a fast-paced historical exposition, they thought, “That’s a way to get ratings.” Fox News wouldn’t have renewed Legends & Lies for a second season if it hadn’t brought eyeballs.
We’re doing fact-based history. It’s not political. I have a historical collection of documents, so this is definitely in my wheelhouse, but from the beginning, I said, “In order to get masses of people to pay attention, you’ve got to make it entertaining.” I do that on The O’Reilly Factor. It’s a news show, but it’s fun to watch and that’s why we’ve been No. 1 [in cable news] for 15 years. So you apply the same kind of thing to a history show; you learn a lot, but it’s entertaining. That’s why Legends & Lies worked.
In Patriots, I want people to see the icons of the American Revolution as they really were, not as they’ve been mythologized. I did that with Killing Reagan and some people got mad at me. They had Reagan on Mount Olympus. In my opinion, he was a hero, but he wasn’t perfect. You’re going to be shocked about how tough and brutal George Washington was. If you were a loyalist to King George, vigilante justice was pretty much what there was. That’s been downplayed by historians. And when we think of Benjamin Franklin, there’s the kite, the $100 bill, the chubby guy. Well, Benjamin Franklin was a big ladies’ man, and it got him in trouble when he was in France trying to get them to help the new country and he was running around with everybody’s wife.
We want to bring out the personalities of the people who led the colonies to freedom. That’s what I think the audience responds to in these kinds of historical shows. They want to know who these people really are, and that always engenders great conversations. I think we’ll get a lot of, “Boy, I didn’t know that.” If there’s another season, we’ll look at the Civil War. Our production company has 15 historical projects that we could roll out. The first one is Lords of War, which looks at famous people like Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan on up to those who drive these terrible wars today. Killing Reagan, with Tim Matheson as Reagan and Cynthia Nixon as Nancy, is being shot in Atlanta and we’re in pre-production on Killing Patton.
Research shows that people of all political persuasions watch history programming. I do think there’s a great disparity between those who are educated and those who are not. If you’re ill-educated, if you’re watching the Kardashians, you’re not going to watch history, generally speaking. But if you read and watch news programs and have a little bit of reference from school, you’ll want to know more. This is a year of politics and change, and everybody’s engaged in the process. They’re going to want to see how their country came about.
I can’t speculate on what legends and lies will come out of this presidential campaign. Any day anything can happen. You’ve got one presidential contender who could be arrested and you’ve got another one who any day can do any thing. So, you’ve got to take it step by step. This will be a totally unique race and if nothing surprising happens, the key to this whole campaign is the debate. Whoever wins the debate will win the office.
It will be the most watched political event in history, the debate between Clinton and Trump, if Clinton makes it to there. The FBI is going to have something to say about that—one way or the other. If it’s not Clinton and Trump in the debate, it will be Joe Biden. Not Sanders. That’s my prediction. But a Biden-Trump debate won’t be as good as Hillary and Trump.
— As told to Ileane Rudolph
The O’Reilly Factor, Weekdays, 8/7c, Fox News Channel.
Legends & Lies: Patriots, Sundays, 8/7c, Fox News Channel.AlertMe