Glenn Beck is returning to television on Dish Network starting in just a few hours. Beginning at 5 p.m., the controversial conservative talk show host will bring his Web series The Blaze to live television, more than a year after the commentator's frosty departure from his final berth in the TV world, Fox News ("Half of the headlines say he's been canceled. The other half say he quit. We're pretty happy with both of them," Fox News chairman Roger Ailes told the Associated Press at the time). On Dish, Beck will have his own network, with 35 hours of new content a week.
What's most surprising about the move (besides the fact that Dish apparently prefers Glenn Beck to Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead) is that Beck has not done poorly in the world of online video. Not at all, in fact. Beck's brand of tearful patriotism and stern invective has some 300,000 paying fans, at least as far as his website goes. His book The Christmas Sweater (among several others) made a tremendous amount of money, and between publishing, radio, live stage shows and Web destination TheBlaze.com, he made at least $32 million in 2010 according to Forbes. His salary at Fox News was reported to be about $2 million per year, and the consensus when he left the network—or was fired, whichever narrative you prefer—was that television needs Glenn Beck more than Glenn Beck needs television. People forget, but Beck's star was on the rise before his Fox News program began dominating headlines—clearly, the Web was a place where he could say whatever he pleased and damn the torpedoes.
Now he's back. "The Blaze has helped revolutionize television over the Internet and now we are excited to bring the revolution back to traditional television," Beck said in a statement today, while Christopher Balfe, the company's CEO, made this odd distinction: "At launch, our goal was to deliver TV over the Internet, not Internet TV." Seriously, though—why?
Part of the return may be self-explanatory. Beck was part of the national conversation before, because he had a national audience. He pulled in millions of viewers in his 5 p.m. slot—even when his ratings began to slump at the end of his tenure at Fox News, they were far ahead of the competition—but he raised hackles when he suggested that left-leaning Jewish billionaire George Soros was a Nazi sympathizer (Soros passed as a Christian in Nazi-occupied Hungary as a 14-year-old child) and that President Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people." Few advertisers were anxious to be associated with that kind of rhetoric. So it may be appealing for Beck to run the show himself, on a huge platform—Dish has 14.1 million subscribers, and The Blaze told the New York Times this morning that it would seek full distribution.
But another factor might simply be age. Sure, 300,000 subscribers is a huge, huge number, but Beck's show skewed older. Folks in the demographic for The Glenn Beck Program are more likely to be interested in linear television than Web TV under most circumstances, and a return to traditional media might not have much overlap with Beck's already-stalwart internet following.
Still, at least one serious question remains: On his own terms, will Beck have trouble attracting the same following that hung on his every word at two news networks? And will the chattering classes be as interested when he's not part of a bigger organization?
We'll all find out soon.