It’s the end of an era: Glenn Beck is leaving his daily talk show on Fox News later this year, he and Fox announced Wednesday. The show, called “Glenn Beck,” had seen a precipitous decline in ratings over the last year, and Mr. Beck’s departure was not unexpected.
Not long ago, the populist rabble-rouser of the right and self-described “rodeo clown” was flying high. Beck began at Fox a little more than two years ago, in January 2009, having jumped from CNN Headline News. Coincidentally, that was right before the birth of the tea party, and he quickly became one of the movement’s leading advocates. In March 2009, he launched the successful 9-12 Project, which sought to promote patriotic values. And last August, he drew tens of thousands of people from around the country to a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, called “Restoring Honor.”
But over the last year, “Glenn Beck” has lost more than a million viewers from its 5:00 p.m. show, going from an average 2.9 million in January 2010 to 1.8 million in January 2011, according to The New Republic. Beck’s radio show has been dropped in several big cities, including New York and Philadelphia. TV advertisers started fleeing, including Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Wal-Mart.
What went wrong? Analysts suggest that Beck’s antics got to be too much – the tears, the conspiracy theories, the “Obama is a socialist” drumbeat.
“In recent months, it seems, Beck’s theories became so outlandish that even conservatives – both viewers and media personalities – were having a hard time stomaching them,” writes TNR’s James Downie.
He cites a theory by unauthorized Beck biographer Alexander Zaitchik, who says that Beck was caught in a vicious circle: “To keep viewers coming back, he had to keep creating new, more intricate theories. Last November, in a two-part special that indirectly invoked anti-Semitism, he accused liberal Jewish financier George Soros of orchestrating the fall of foreign governments for financial gain. During the Egyptian Revolution, Beck sided with Hosni Mubarak, alleging that his fall was ‘controlled by the socialist communists and the Muslim Brotherhood.’ ”
In another recent example, Beck warned viewers not to use Google, saying it’s “deep in bed with the government.”
“He’s a spectacle,” says Jeffrey Jones, a professor of media and politics at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. “He wears viking helmets, he pours gasoline on things. It wouldn’t surprise me that what was once a fresh voice has now become a routine, that audiences might be saying, ‘Well, I’ve seen that before.’ ”
Professor Jones also suggests that it takes a fair amount of mental energy to unpack Beck’s various conspiracy theories, and some viewers may have tired of that.
“Any time you have a red-hot show, you have to go mainstream in order to sustain yourself,” says Walter Podrazik, co-author of the book “Watching TV.” “The catch with ardent followers is that they’ll go ardently follow something else after a short while.”
In a New York Times interview two years ago, Beck said he identified with the Howard Beale character in the movie “Network,” about a “mad prophet” news anchor who rants: “We're as mad as hell, and we're not going to take this anymore." Anyone who has watched the film knows that things don’t end well for Mr. Beale.
But Beck, it appears, is landing on his feet. He and Fox are not breaking up completely. In a joint statement, Fox and Beck’s production company, Mercury Radio Arts, said that they will work together to produce TV projects that will air on Fox News and other Fox platforms. Beck also still has his radio show, his writing, and Beck University, an online education program.