Yesterday’s announcement that Glenn Beck is ending his eponymous Fox News program has caused sadness on the right and jubilation on the left. But both sides share a common fascination with what is now one of the biggest questions in media: What’s the conservative star’s next move?
One much-discussed theory posits that Beck has Oprah-sized ambitions of controlling his own television network. This idea first gained traction last month when Beck poached veteran television executive Joel Cheatwood from Fox. Since then, there have been only unofficial signals that a Beck network might be in the offing. Robert Shelton, Beck’s longtime confidant and sometimes colleague at his radio production company, Mercury Radio Arts, recently penned a cryptic post on his Facebook page about a “new job” involving “lots of travel.” Shortly after a recent trip to New York to visit Beck, Shelton linked to a new “GBTV” fan site, listed under “TV Network.”
A less audacious scenario sees Beck continuing to aggressively expand his business in various old and new media directions, including stage, print, online news aggregation and film.
But regardless of the scope of Beck’s post-Fox plans, he leaves the network a wounded media commodity. His comet-like journey to megastardom since January 2009 has, almost from the beginning, been defined as much by its long tail of controversy as by its ball of front-end fire. Beck always had his critics. But ever since he appeared on Fox & Friends one June morning and called the president a “racist . . . with a deep hatred for white people,” the former Top 40 jock has been hounded and battered by a boycott campaign unique in the annals of television. A committed and effective coalition of forces has succeeded in getting hundreds of advertisers to drop Beck’s show, which it argues is dangerously polarizing, conspiratorial, racially charged and full of anti-Semitic tropes.
Even if Beck decides to soften his persona and message, observers say it will be impossible for him to scrub his image and rehabilitate his commercial appeal. “Beck has reached a point where his [polarizing] political profile vastly supersedes his broadcasting profile,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine. “This plays into big national sponsors' reticence to advertise on programs that they deem controversial.”
The anti-Beck coalition includes one-man operations such as Angelo Carusone’s Stopbeck.com and well-organized national groups such as Media Matters for America, Color of Change and Jewish Funds for Justice. (Full disclosure: The author conducts research for Media Matters.) Yesterday, these groups responded to Beck’s announcement that he was leaving Fox with declarations of triumph. “Today, we feel like our voices have been heard,” said Simon Greer of Jewish Funds for Justice, which organized religious leaders in calling for the cancellation of Beck’s Fox show.
The boycott has not only succeeded in depriving Fox News of advertising revenue that it can recoup with Beck out of the picture, it has created a public narrative in which Beck is seen as toxic to brands associated with the mainstream of American life. And Beck will carry this narrative with him into whatever he does next. “Our goal was always to make sure he’s not accepted as mainstream,” said James Rucker, director of Color of Change, an Oakland, Calif.-based civil rights group. “And I think the verdict is in. It’s been demonstrated that Beck is a business liability. The largest, most successful companies want nothing to do with him.”
Nor do the groups now claiming victory have any intention of letting Beck off the hook just because he has lost his 5 p.m. perch on Fox. “This is round one,” said Rucker. “We’ve been focused on TV, but now we’ll have space freed up to look at [his] other platforms.” On the radio front, several groups are working to make sure that Beck’s radio show, recently dropped by WOR in New York, remains off the air in the media capital of the world. Ditto Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
All of which makes talk of Beck taking over a television network seem fanciful indeed. If Beck can’t attract national advertisers for a one-hour show on the dominant cable news network, how can he expect to fill 24 hours a day, seven days a week? “Everyone wants to take over a network,” said Eric Boehlert of Media Matters. “But it’s a Herculean task. Oprah can barely get one off the ground, and she’s iconic. People flock to her and run from him.”
Of course, Beck doesn’t need a TV network supported by national advertisers to maintain a healthy profit margin. There are plenty of ideologically friendly niche advertisers—from Mormon publishing houses to peddlers of survivalist gear—who are immune to pressure from outside groups or public opinion. Beck has proven this by making money even as his attenuated advertising base increasingly reflects his fringe position on the political spectrum. By embracing this reality, he has a good chance of strengthening his lock on the crisis-garden and emergency-radio market. But he should forget about ever wooing back General Mills.
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist and the author of Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance.