Almost a year ago, Glenn Beck created an uproar when he called President Obama a "racist" who had a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." Liberals screamed for Beck's head while advertisers and viewers fled from his talk show on Fox News Channel.
Beck's critics are probably happy that another advertiser, Fly.com, recently decided to quit Beck's show. Nonetheless, despite an almost daily barrage from critics, Beck appears in no danger of losing his job at the top-rated cable news network or his talk radio gig.
According to the latest ratings from Nielsen, The Glenn Beck Show is seen by more than 2.4 million viewers, including 637,000 in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic of interest to advertisers on news programs.
Losing Audience Share?
Media Matters, a liberal activist group, argues that Beck has lost one-third of his audience this year. While that's true, it misses a bigger picture. Beck's viewership is larger than his competitors in his same time slot at CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and HLN combined. His radio show is the third-most-listened-to talk program behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity's, according to Talkers Magazine. His weekly listenership is about 7 million over more than 400 affiliate radio stations. Plus, as my colleague Sarah Weinman pointed out recently, Beck is even breathing new life into the moribund book publishing industry.
"Everyone should have Glenn Beck's problems," says Michael Harrison, founder and publisher of Talkers Magazine, in an interview. Controversy "comes with the territory he has carved out for himself. He is one of the most successful talk show hosts on the scene when it comes to generating revenue."
Beck also owns an online university, which some critics have ridiculed. Of course, there is the Glenn Beck merchandise and the "Bold and Fresh" speaking tour he does with his Fox News colleague Bill O'Reilly. His net worth has been pegged at about $22 million. Ever since the controversy, Beck has changed his approach. He later told CBS anchor Katie Couric that "I'm sorry the way it was phrased." At least one Beck critic isn't buying the host's contrition.
"He chooses his words more carefully," says Angelo Carusone, who started the StopBeck.com Web site that organized the advertiser boycott, adding that he continues to foment sexism and "racial anxiety."
With or Without Fox TV
Even without his Fox TV show, Beck wouldn't fade away. Limbaugh didn't when his TV show was canceled in 1996. And while having blue-chip advertisers is prestigious, the fact that some have dropped their support of Beck, 46, is not the end the world. A Fox spokeswoman pointed out that all of those companies bought time on other programs, so there has been no financial hit to the News Corp (NWS) channel. Fly.com, a tiny advertiser that's part of Travelzoo (TZOO), declined to comment further on its decision. Some of Beck's top advertisers including LifeLock, a provider of identity-theft protection, and American Advisors Group, a marketer of reverse mortgages, have run into legal troubles.
In an interview, Carusone acknowledged that the boycott would have been more effective if advertisers had quit Fox altogether but argues that advertising revenue on Beck's program has suffered because Fox is forced to run many discounted commercials. "They can't pretend that there is not an economic effect there," he says.
Comments such as Salon.com's Joe Conasan's call for the talk-show host to be fired, for allegedly making anti-Semitic remarks, will only serve to fire up his defenders rather than ignite a public groundswell against the broadcaster. Beck's critics have failed to hurt the talk show host and his corporate masters where it counts -- on their bottom lines. As Harrison points out, the only way that News Corp would take him off the air would be for financial, not political, reasons.
Beck, though, finds friends in the strangest of places. A New York Times editorial praised Beck for not rushing to judgment in the story of Shirley Sherrod, the U.S. Department of Agriculture employee unfairly smeared as a racist. Sherrod was offered her job back by an apologetic USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack after he got all the facts of the situation.
"The administration's haste to fire Ms. Sherrod was unfair and unseemly," the paper said. "She told of how an agriculture under secretary phoned her to demand she resign instantly via her BlackBerry. The official anxiously cited the likelihood the furor would `be on Glenn Beck tonight.' By the time the conservative commentator took up the issue, the full transcript of the speech was out and Mr. Beck was citing Ms. Sherrod -- but as a victim of administration recklessness. This time, he was right."
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