Thursday, April 7, 2011

Glenn Beck is Going

This week there are a slew of news anchors and presenters who are rumored to be leaving their programs. Katie Couric is probably vacating the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News. Meredith Viera and Matt Lauer might exit from NBC's "Today." Only one move is certain. Over on FOX News yesterday, to the surprise of many, it was announced that Glenn Beck's eponymous political commentary show, is being scuttled later in the year. Beck's more outrageous antics prompted some advertisers to pull their ads from the program in 2009, but his ratings remained high. Well, until recently anyway. His viewership numbers are currently half of what they were a year ago, and are on an apparent downward trajectory.

It's hard to believe that it's only been two years since Beck joined FOX, after a long stint on CNN Headline news. I don't watch FOX News and I don't watch Glenn Beck, but it's been hard to escape his presence in the infotainment world. He's brought up constantly in criticisms of the media, FOX News, and the Tea Party, because he makes for such an easy target. His over-the-top self aggrandizement, increasingly nutty conspiracy theories, paranoid chalkboard diagrams, and commercials for gold retailers have been constantly parodied by late-night comedians. And of course, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert responded to his "Restoring Honor" rally with their own "Rally to Restore Sanity" last year. The more cynical among us long ago concluded that Beck was either a real-life Howard Beale ("I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!") with possible emotional or psychological issues, or that he was putting on an act and knowingly egging on the worst impulses of his audience. Both possibilities have some disturbing implications.

But maybe the picture isn't so bleak when you consider that Beck ultimately couldn't maintain his audience. I'm sure there are people out there who actually take Glenn Beck at face value and believe all his unhinged ranting. Beck is a charismatic man and a good performer, with a long history of attracting attention on his various television and radio shows. But I have to assume from the steep decline in his ratings, that many were only there for the sideshow. Or perhaps Beck went too far with his attacks, and people stopped taking him seriously. Or they just got bored with his act. FOX's ratings fell and CNN's went up in the first part of the year, largely because there was actual news going on - revolutions across Northern Africa and the Middle East, and the earthquake in Japan. When political battles recede from public view, so do the fortunes of those who exploit them.

Glenn Beck seems to work best as a populist instigator, and has often aligned himself with the Tea Party movement. However, the election cycle is currently at a low point, with the midterm races behind us, so he can't build on any Get-Out-the-Vote energy. The closest thing to grassroots political action of much efficacy lately has been in regards to the Wisconsin union controversies, and politically he and FOX News are on the wrong side of that fight. So the timing of Beck's decline and departure makes sense. Any benefits of keeping him in reserve until the 2012 elections, possibly in a less visible timeslot, have probably been outweighed by the fact that Beck has made himself into the network's biggest target for mockery and criticism. And while his controversial nature may be appealing to some viewers, it's also costly in terms of ad revenue and the network's reputation as a serious news operation.

Beck won't be going away entirely of course. He'll still have his radio shows, his speaking tours, his website, and his books. He'll no doubt still show up on other FOX shows once in a while as a guest commentator. He's such a recognizable name, the media will still gladly pass along his most outrageous pronouncements for us to gawk at. And the extremists, of course, will still seek him out and use him as validation for their own warped views. However, I can't see his departure as anything but a good thing. Insightful political commentators can be valuable, but someone like Glenn Beck just muddles this discourse and derails meaningful dialogue. It's wishful thinking that this move may indicate FOX News is turning a corner - they can always give Beck's timeslot to someone worse - but I hope this will at least prompt them to reign in some of the shock jock tactics before they get out of hand in such spectacular fashion again.

As for those who wish to follow Glenn Beck's career path to infamy, if the current state of his career isn't enough to dissuade, I suggest renting "Network" and getting an eyeful of the ultimate fate of Howard Beale.

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