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Phil Rosenthal, Chicago Tribune
Other factors may be made the scapegoats, but it’s the age-old conspiracy between commerce and television that’s truly to blame for Wednesday’s announcement that Beck will “transition off of his daily program,” the third-most popular show in cable news, by the end of the year.
Popularity doesn’t always translate to profitability, and the “Glenn Beck” program was becoming a better business proposition for Beck than for FNC.
It wasn’t just that ratings for the first quarter of 2011 showed Beck’s show had lost close to a third of its audience compared with the same stretch a year ago, when his viewership peaked at 2.78 million. Among advertiser-prized viewers ages 25 to 54, he was down almost 40 percent, and advertisers increasingly were shunning him in any case.
“There was an advertising push-back, and he said some things that made them uncomfortable,” said Brad Adgate, an industry analyst for Horizon Media. “That made it difficult to get premium ad rates, and you had more inventory to sell than what you should for the kind of audience he had.”
Not knowing what Beck might say next on live TV may well have been part of the lure for viewers, who flocked to his program in numbers CNN, HLN, MSNBC and CNBC combined couldn’t match in his time slot. But that uncertainty had just the opposite effect on would-be sponsors and his Fox News bosses.
So the incendiary host who just last summer led the much-publicized “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial — attended by anywhere from 87,000 to 500,000, depending on whose estimate you believed — was judged more trouble than he was worth.
Fox News will partner with Beck’s production company, Mercury Radio Arts, in developing and producing various potential TV projects for FNC as well as other platforms, including Fox News’ digital properties, and it will head into next year’s political primary season without one of its top draws.
Similarly, MSNBC will enter the presidential campaign cycle without its own provocative top draw, Keith Olbermann, who hopes his fans follow him to Current TV. And CBS presumably will go into the election year without its current lead anchor, Katie Couric, who is expected to test the marketability of her own brand with a syndicated daytime effort.
“Glenn Beck is a powerful communicator, a creative entrepreneur and a true success by anybody’s standards,” Roger Ailes, Fox News’ chairman and chief executive, said in the announcement. “I look forward to continuing to work with him.”
Even though marketers didn’t want to go near Beck, who earlier this year apologized for equating radical Islam with reform Judaism, Fox News benefited from Beck’s prime-time-size audience numbers in a late-afternoon time slot, which provided a strong lead-in to Bret Baier’s newscast.
But ratings were largely unaffected when former Judge Andrew Napolitano filled in for Beck earlier last month. Another likely to be considered for Beck’s slot would be Megyn Kelly.
Beck, who suggested that President Barack Obama was racist, was a magnet for criticism. He sometimes alienated Democrats and Republicans alike. Ailes told the Daily Beast in November that he had told the host to be mindful of his tone. “I’ve said to him: ‘Where the hell are you going to get your audience if you keep this up?'” Ailes told the website.
Yet Beck’s most devoutly loyal hard-core following doesn’t just buy what he has to say on TV and on his nationally syndicated radio show, heard locally on WIND-AM 560. His fans purchase his books, pay up to $9.95 a month for special content on his website and shell out $95 for tickets to personal appearances, such as his scheduled tour stop April 14 at the Chicago Theatre.
Not having the daily TV exposure could undercut Beck. A New York Times story last month floated the idea of Beck launching his own cable channel to leverage his popularity, a la Chicago-based syndicated talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, who has partnered with Discovery Communications on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. OWN, however, has struggled to find its footing in its first few months.
Beck, in a statement, said that “America owes a lot” to Ailes and Fox News and that he “cannot repay Roger for the lessons” he has learned since joining FNC in 2009. “I look forward to starting this new phase of our partnership,” he said.
Joel Cheatwood, the former WMAQ-Ch. 5 news director who helped raise Beck’s TV profile first at HLN and then FNC, is leaving his Fox News senior vice president of development post later this month to work for Beck full time, as expected. Cheatwood’s duties will include managing the partnership with News Corp.-owned FNC.
“Joel is a good friend and one of the most talented and creative executives in the business,” Ailes said in the announcement. “Over the past four years I have consistently valued his input and advice and that will not stop as we work with him in his new role.”
Cheatwood is remembered in Chicago as the Channel 5 news boss on whose watch in the 1990s a series of affronts occurred — including using trash-TV host Jerry Springer as a commentator — that precipitated the loss of both the station’s lead anchors, many viewers and a good deal of revenue.
“Maybe (Beck) feels he’s going on to bigger and better things,” Adgate said.
Then, half-joking, Adgate offered his own suggestion: “He should go on Current TV and do a kind of ‘Crossfire’ with Keith Olbermann.”
Expect the apocalypse sooner.