After a week of big-if-they-actually-happen TV career moves comes a big-and-actually-happening announcement: Glenn Beck and Fox News announced today that Beck will leave his daily TV show by the end of the year. According to the statement, Beck’s production company will develop new programming for Fox:
Fox News and Mercury Radio Arts, Glenn Beck’s production company, are proud to announce that they will work together to develop and produce a variety of television projects for air on the Fox News Channel as well as content for other platforms including Fox News’ digital properties. Glenn intends to transition off of his daily program, the third highest rated in all of cable news, later this year.
With Beck having a radio show, bestselling books and a big Internet presence, this is not likely the end of him as a media star. (Though it will be interesting to see, whatever he does next, how many of his audience are Fox fans, and how many are Beck fans.) But it is the culmination of a period in which a fast-rising Fox celeb became increasingly problematic as a TV star.
Beck rose at Fox with the rise of a conservative anxiety, if not sense of apocalyptic doom, over the Obama administration—literally, after Beck left a less-watched CNN Headline News program, his Fox show started
with the day before the President’s inauguration. He quickly started posting primetime-like numbers at 5 p.m., becoming known for his sometime-awkward tears, generous use of illustrative props (chalkboards, cupcakes, Jenga towers) and above all, doomsaying, which grabbed viewers, especially those of the Tea Party persuasion, at a time of big political change and economic free-fall.
He speculated about the possibility of Civil War. He explored the hidden fascist symbols on the 1916 Mercury dime. (For which, see a column I wrote about him back in his ratings heyday.) He advised viewers to buy gold and prepare for very, very bad times.
Whether you thought he was nuts, crazy like a (lowercase) fox, a prophet or a dangerous demagogue, the man was not a success by accident: he knew how to make TV. I’m not sure I share more than a handful of his political beliefs and I’ve made plenty of fun of him over his tenure, but Beck had a sense of play with the medium and the ability to make a rant into a story. There was a what-will-the-guy-say-next factor that made for compelling TV; if Beck began a spiel with “People call me crazy for this but…” it was time to make popcorn and possibly hit record on the DVR.
But the issue of what the guy actually would say next increasingly became an issue. In the spirit of the morning-zoo radio shows he came up in early in his career, he would talk to shock, accusing President Obama of nursing a hatred of white people and seeing socialists under every rug. As the New York Times’ David Carr noted in a prescient column suggesting Beck was not long for this channel, just over a month ago, the show’s verve started to sour, and it became a grim—and worse, predictable—litany of doom. Van Jones! George Soros! Mexico! Islamofascism! Socialism! (This culminated in his reactions to the democracy protests and regime change in Egypt, which he saw as a marriage of Islamofascism and socialism.) As Mediaite noted the other day, even Beck remarked on air that it was “getting boring.”
Beck’s rantings may have caused issues for Fox at times, as he increasingly became the face of the network. But ratings and money can excuse a lot of controversy. Unfortunately, Beck also began bleeding ratings, disproportionately to any general decline in cable ratings (even if his ratings were and are still far above anything Fox or competitors were posting in the hour before he started). And maybe worse, he was losing advertisers by the boatload—his chief remaining sponsors, it seemed, were the sellers of gold that his doomsaying did so much to endorse.
What was it that finally ended Beck’s run? Did Fox get tired of him? Did he get tired of Fox? Was it the ratings trend? The advertising trend? His critics on the left (and occasionally, on the right)? Was it the Islamofascistsocialists, working in partnership with Woodrow Wilson?
A combination, maybe. And a recognition of—in a way—a similar factor that figured into MSNBC and Keith Olbermann parting ways despite Olbermann’s success: sometimes a personality can bring a network great success and yet still become more trouble than they’re worth, the same attributes that make one a star can eventually become all too much. No conspiracy theory necessary here; in this sense, Beck’s departure, like his rise, was an inside job.