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Fox gives Glenn Beck's show the boot

Sinking ratings, an ad boycott and a focus on conspiracies lead to its demise.

April 07, 2011|By Scott Collins and Melissa Maerz, Los Angeles Times
  • Glenn Beck's show on Fox will be off the air later this year.
Glenn Beck's show on Fox will be off the air later this year. (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Completing a swift rise and fall from TV stardom, controversial host Glenn Beck will lose his once-popular Fox News show later this year, the network announced Wednesday.

Beck's 5 p.m. program, which earned scorn from liberals for its attacks on President Obama as well as its devotion to sometimes-obscure right-wing thinkers, was a top cable draw in 2009 and a signpost for the populist "tea party" movement in last year's midterm elections, which dealt a ballot-box rebuke to the White House.

But ratings plummeted and advertisers bailed as Beck — a cherubic, salt-and-pepper-haired longtime radio host who has compared himself to a rodeo clown — increasingly pursued a hard-to-follow agenda that many found too conspiracy-minded. He also chafed his bosses at Fox News, who faulted him for spending too much time on his far-flung business operations and not enough on honing his TV presentation.

Both sides cobbled together a diplomatically worded statement Wednesday that noted Beck would "transition off" his daily program but stressed that the host and Fox News had reached a new deal for future, as-yet-unspecified projects. Joel Cheatwood, a senior Fox News executive, was hired away to help run Beck's company, Mercury Radio Arts.

Fox News and Beck both declined to comment beyond the statement.

Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman and chief executive who until recently had overridden doubts about Beck among his subordinates, said in the statement: "Glenn Beck is a powerful communicator, a creative entrepreneur and a true success by anybody's standards."

But there was little mistaking the upshot of the move: Less than three years after joining Fox News from CNN's Headline News amid a burst of publicity, Beck is being booted off the air. His sinking ratings certainly didn't help — they fell 32% for the first three months of this year, to 1.9 million total viewers, according to the Nielsen Co.

And after months of reported friction between the host and Fox News as well as an aggressive advertiser boycott after Beck dubbed President Obama a racist, analysts professed little surprise.

"His show had become tired," said Jeffrey McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University. "He was spending a lot of time just talking in front of his blackboard. Guests were less frequently involved.

"The ratings drop was significant and couldn't be ignored," McCall continued. "The advertiser boycott didn't hurt the program or FNC as much in terms of dollars as it did in terms of bad publicity. Beck was no longer just a personality with a show on FNC. He became an easy target for Fox News critics to characterize him as representative of the entire channel."

Indeed, many executives at Fox News reportedly felt that Beck was never a good fit with the channel, which includes programming with such hosts as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity that appeals to more mainstream conservatives. This divide grew sharper in recent months, as Beck devoted more time to so-called "black helicopter" conspiracy theorists who view government agencies as allied with shadowy business and tech interests determined to manipulate the lives of ordinary people. Even some fans began to complain that Beck was ripping off anti-government ideas popularized by another popular radio host, Alex Jones.

Perhaps more important, as a former morning-drive DJ, Beck seems to have had trouble managing the transition to long-term TV news host, where the ability to synthesize the day's events and then create an entertaining program about them is the paramount skill. Viewers began to have trouble discerning which Glenn Beck they were watching: the joshing rodeo clown, the preacher-like man who teared up talking about America or the spectacles-wearing scholar who offered opaque treatises on W. Cleon Skousen and other conservative writers.

"You can't be a rodeo clown and maintain credibility," said Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers, a trade publication that follows the talk-radio industry.

The program is expected to wrap up sometime this summer, though an exact date was not announced.

News of Beck's ouster was greeted with jubilation among his liberal critics. The left-leaning website Huffington Post featured a picture of the host with the giant headline: "IT'S OVER."

"His behavior went from erratic to completely unhinged," said Ari Rabin-Havt, executive vice president of Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group that has long attacked Beck. "Ultimately Fox had no choice but to make this decision."

But Harrison cautioned that liberals should not divine any larger political meaning in Beck's exit.

"A little dip in the ratings, and suddenly people think the whole conservative movement is going down," he said. "When people watch Beck or O'Reilly or Hannity or Howard Stern, it's not necessarily equivalent to saying 'I agree with them.' That's one of the biggest myths in broadcasting. Lots of people listen to these guys because they hate them."

scott.collins@latimes.com

melissa.maerz@latimes.com

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