By Benjamin Svetkey
December 21, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

He’s the most enjoyable blowhard on TV. And the most infuriating. It depends on what night you tune in. Which is why Bill O’Reilly was by far the most entertaining talking head on the cable-news networks this year: You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next. One night he’s blasting George W. Bush for his pro-capital punishment views, the next he’s giving the Reverend Al Sharpton verbal noogies over affirmative action. Is he a conservative? Absolutely. A liberal? Occasionally. Confounding? Always.

Whatever he is, his nightly program on the Fox News Network, The O’Reilly Factor — where pols and pundits enter what O’Reilly describes as his ”no-spin zone” — is pulling an average of 20 million viewers a week (an astonishing number considering most cable news programs are lucky to net a six-figure audience), making it the most-watched talk show on cable. And we’re pretty sure the reason most of those millions are tuning in has nothing to do with his guests’ fascinating views on tax reform or stem-cell research.

”We’re the first prime-time news program to analyze events from the workingman’s point of view,” is how the 52-year-old former Inside Edition host spins his show’s success. ”We have no agenda. We’re not trying to get anyone elected. We’re just trying to help regular people make sense of the world.”

Even after the 9/11 tragedy, when personality-driven chatfests like The Factor suddenly seemed obsolete, O’Reilly kept his name in the news by reporting on the mismanagement of Red Cross contributions, ultimately forcing the charity to reorganize its distribution efforts. (His latest target is Hollywood; he’s publicly feuding with George Clooney over the distribution of funds raised during the Sept. 21 celebrity telethon.) In fact, even some of his harshest critics admit O’Reilly’s a tough guy not to like — or at least not to watch.

”People enjoy his authenticity,” offers frequent sparring partner Sharpton (who’s appeared on The Factor so often O’Reilly devoted a chapter to him in his latest best-seller, The No Spin Zone: Confrontations With the Powerful and Famous in America). ”Whether you agree with him or not — and 99 percent of the time, I don’t — you’ve got to like someone who’s that real, who isn’t at all sugarcoated,” says Sharpton. ”He’s extremely opinionated, but he’s also extremely informed. I always take the attitude that if I can survive going on his show, I can survive anything.”