Bill O’Reilly Protégé Jesse Watters Talks Correspondents Dinner Scuffle, His Rise From PA to On-Air Host

D.C. dust-up thrust Watters in the spotlight, but he’s been groomed for primetime for years

Jesse Watters
Fox News

Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly was grooming Jesse Watters long before the “Watters World” host made headlines last month over a late-night scuffle with Huffington Post Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim following the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

“What happened was unfortunate. I regretted it. It’s not something I think about and I’m trying to move on past it,” Watters said. “I wouldn’t even call what happened a fight.”

The incident put Watters in the spotlight, but viewers of “The O’Reilly Factor” have known about him for over a decade. The 37-year-old has worked for O’Reilly since 2003, with job titles ranging from production assistant and booker to producer and correspondent. Watters has even sat in O’Reilly’s chair as a fill-in host on “The O’Reilly Factor.” Eventually, his “Watters World” segment spun off into a series of weekend specials. Watters credits his mentor for his success.

“Over the years, I’ve learned almost everything that I know about television from Bill. You learn a lot from Bill just from being in the pitch meetings,” Watters said, before explaining that O’Reilly has a unique sense of what stories people will become emotionally invested in.

The never-too-serious Watters’ on-air career got off to an interesting start in 2004 when he pitched a story about an Alabama judge giving a soft sentence to a sex offender.

“O’Reilly goes around and people pitch things and everyone is terrified,” he joked. “Bill looked at me and said, ‘Alright, Watters, you’re going to go down to Alabama and confront the judge.’”

Watters, who was 24 years old at the time, had never been on air, never been to Alabama and was suddenly staking out a judge, with a cameraman recording his every move, as they followed him through the back roads of Alabama. When the man finally parked at the courthouse, Watters jumped out and confronted him, per O’Reilly’s orders.

“Hey judge! Judge Bush!” Watters yelled. “How could you do this?”

The man looked at Watters and replied, “I’m not Judge Bush.”

Watters was mistakenly trailing an Alabama State Trooper who went on to tip off the real Judge Bush that Fox News was looking for him. His cover was blown and it was an embarrassing moment. But it all worked out; Watters eventually found and confronted the right person and the segment aired.

“I get back to New York and Bill brings me to his office and says, ‘Alright Watters, good job down there in Alabama. One thing, though. Your voice is too high pitched for television. You need a speech coach,’” Watters said. “Then he goes, ‘Me. Never had that problem.’”

Watters didn’t take that particular advice, but things have worked out OK.

“Watters World” is up 20 percent in total viewers and up 53 percent in the key demo of adults age 25-54 vs. the same time period last year. The show averages 1.3 million and 219,000 in the demo for the past six episodes. The scuffle didn’t hurt Watters in the ratings department, as his May 14 special averaged 1.26 million viewers and was replayed numerous times on the network.

The seventh edition of “Watters World” airs on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET and features interviews with Mark Cuban, Donald Trump and his mentor, O’Reilly.

Watters jokingly says that O’Reilly’s one downfall is that he’s “kind of stuck in the ’70s,” when he offers advice on reporting in the field.

“He’ll say, ‘Alright Watters, go to the barbershop. That’s where they all sit around and talk,’” Watters joked. “Or he’ll say, ‘Do a segment on these taxi cab drivers. These guys hang out in the garages with their cigars.’”

Watters tends to stick with more current field locations, such as a recent Beyoncé concert where he filmed a segment for Saturday’s special.

He joked, “Beyoncé folks are all policy wonks” and says they “talked a lot about tax reform.”