How a boycott brought down Beck

Apr 07, 2011

Jeff McCall answered questions about how an ad boycott, fixation with conspiracy theories, and quick dip in ratings lead to Glenn Beck losing his show on Fox News.

This is Jeff McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University.  I am ready to respond to questions and comments about FNC discontinuing the Beck show.

In your opinion, which of the following was the most important consideration made by Fox News in arriving at their decision to not renew Mr. Beck's contract: (1) the loss of advertising revenue, (2) the possible harm to Fox's "fair and balanced" brand, or (3) the marked drop in viewership of his program? Secondly, has his radio ratings experienced a similar drop in listeners and if not, why?

I think the bad publicity and the ratings drop were the key factors.  Most of the advertisers who boycotted Beck still ended up buying spots on FNC.  I don't know specifically about his radio ratings, but a number of his affiliates have departed in recent weeks, including in Milwaukee and the  Buckley owned stations.

There seem to be ample spokespersons at either ideological extreme. What, if any, forces do you see that could drive more toward a moderate middle and consensus on the issues of the day?

It really is a polarized time out there.  I would like to see more even-handed analysts in the national dialogue. It seems for now, however, that the more partisan voices are the ones that get heard.  As audience members, we need to let media producers and owners know we want more analytical voices who can discuss consenus and not just divide people.

So, how DID an ad boycott help bring Beck down?

It generated bad publicity for FNC.  Image is important for a news organization and Beck was becoming a pretty big personality and causing too much concern over what he might say next.

Do we really know that the boycott was even partly responsible for Beck leaving Fox? Boycotts like these are generally ineffective - is there some concrete evidence that says otherwise in this case? I'm no fan of Beck. I think his brand of entertainment (if you can call it that - it's certainly not jouranlism) that relies on crazy conspiracy theories is dispicable and does us harm as a nation. On the other hand, don't you think the celebration is a bit premature?  After all, according to Forbes, Beck made more than $32 million dollars in 2009 (only $2 million came from his Fox show). It seems like the TV show may just be a nussiance to him.

It is very hard to determine precisely that the ad boycott directly affected this decision.  Ad boycotts, as you indicate, are not all that effective generally.  People at the Color of Change are claiming credit for the decision, but there are many factors that surely went into this decision.   Still, it is hard to ignore that a lot of prominent advertisers had abandoned the show....Walmart, Geico, Procter and Gamble, CVS...none of those companies want to be identified with a figure who is viewed as polarizing.

Was he fired, and if so how do we know?

We will never know for sure what happened behind the scenes.  Both sides are talking happy about the discontinuation of the show, but surely there were some hard negotiations going on.  My guess is that FNC wondered if they could continue to control Beck as needed.  I am sure we will still see Beck on FNC for specials, or as a commentator, but not in the early evening and not in their traditional news shows like Special Report.

How many advertisers left his show over the last two years?

Published reports listed the total at up to 300.  The main matter,however, is which advertisers left, and as I indicated, some pretty heavy clients left the show.

In your opinion, was the release of Beck (from his Fox show) timed correctly, or otherwise (too soon/too late)?

This was as good a time as any.  Better now than at the very end of his contract.  Also, better to get this decided now before the big election year of 2012 begins.  Also, very handy to announce now while so many other big stories are on the news agenda and Beck doesn't generate too much attention....

How much responsibility, if any, does Glenn Beck take for his own comments that led to the boycott in the first place? Has he expressed any indication he wished he had said anything differently?

If Beck has had any regrets for his remarsk, there has been little evidence of it.  He speaks his mind and goes forward, which is why a lot of people like him, of course.  The remarks that sparked the boycott were not helpful....but it took a long time for FNC to finally discontinue the show.

Why wasnt he taken off sooner?

The ratings were still good for a long time.  And frankly, his show was still generating a buzz.  His show had become more predictable lately, so this was a good time to make the decision.

Can you tell us which advertisers stayed with Beck to the end, and refused to pull their ads?

The people who sell gold stayed in and some sponsors for exercise equipment, it seems to me.

Could this turn of events have anything to do with Beck's announcement last July that he had macular dystrophy and might go blind within a year? Because if so, this would have strong theological implications, proving, among other things, that perhaps there is a God after all.

I doubt if Beck's health or vision had anything to do with this matter.  I also don't think there are theological implications.

Professor McCall: For a long time, I thought perhaps that Beck was a sort of political Elmer Gantry, going on and on about things he really didn't believe. But when he started overtly bringing in anti-Semitic stuff, including the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, I became convinced that he really meant what he said and was going to very dark places. Frankly, I think any major consumer goods or B2B company would have been nuts to keep advertising on his show given that trend. Thanks.

I think Beck is sincere on all of the topics he discusses, and that's why his viewers like him.  People might agree or disagree with him, but he is sincere.

How can people believe him?!  What credibility does he have?

Credibility is not held by a person....it is attributed by the receivers of a communication process.  Thus, Beck is credible in the eyes of his fans and not credible in the eyes of his critics.

I do not believe a boycott brought down Beck. Granted some of his ideas were getting a bit strange, he was still popular with many. Also, I believe that he will start up again - I understand that he is considering his own snow on his own station. Liberals would love to think they were behind his demise - I don't believe this is the case - I just think that there were times that Glenn Beck was/is actually right in his assessments and his speaking out was something folks did not want to hear. I will again admit that he also could be a bit over-the-top on other issues.

The boycott was a factor, but not the only factor.  Beck is still popular for many people in this nation.  He will not disappear from the public limelight, even once his show on FNC stops.  He will still show up on FNC as a commentator or on a special broadcast from time to time.  I don't think he can pull off getting his own cable channel started....even Oprah is having trouble doing that.  But Beck can still do books, speaking tours, etc.  He surely will keep speaking.

(1) Since Beck's real audience is self-employed and private sector workers--who are working or commuting at 5:00--the numbers won't change much; (2) Whatever FNC puts on at that hour will still crush whatever MSNBC and CNN have on at that hour; and (3) Jon Stewart will have to do some real work developing material for a change, since all the Daily Show does any more is laugh at Beck.

I agree that the FNC ratings will be sufficient at 5pm, even after Beck departs.  I look for FNC to put a show in there with a more journalistic and calmer tone. 

Hello, Dr. McCall! First of all, you were one of my most favorite professors at DePauw, and while I did not focus on media and journalism as a Communications major, you taught me to be a better critical thinker regarding the media I choose to listen to or read. To my question, there are a number of "infotainers" such as Glenn Beck on the various news channels. Do you think Glenn Beck's dismissal from Fox News will cause a trickle down effect of news channels censoring their more controversial personalities?

Thanks for your kind remarks.  DePauw is a fine university with many fine students.  Glad to hear that you are a critical media consumer!

It will be interesting to see if the  Beck decision sparks a trend toward less controversial personalities.  That could be good for the nation to have a calmer rhetorical tone.  Interesting to note that MSNBC's harshest voice has also departed.....Olberman.

Mostly my response is, "what took them so long?" the boycott started in 2009, right?

Yes, the boycott began a long time ago.   The ratings decline became a factor over time.....and the fact that the show was becoming tired.  Beck used fewer guests on his show.  Much of his show was him talking and thinking out loud.  A show like that can't continue forever.  Also, his theme that America is in trouble could have gotten stale to some viewers.

I've frequently heard Beck equated with Father Coughlin, and the comparison seems fair to me. What do you think? Will people still talk about him and shudder 60 years hence?

I think there is too much time distance between the two to make direct comparisons.  There is a thought, however, that both eventually talked themselves off of the air.  At this time, I find it hard to imagine that Beck will be a topic of discussion in 60 years,....unless he does something else noteworthy down the road here.

Hi Dr. McCall! You are one of my favorite and most memorable professors at DePauw. Do you think FNC discontinuing Beck's show due to the ad boycotts, ratings dip, etc. Will influence other networks to keep a closer eye and possibly censor their more controversial TV personalities?

It is great to hear from former students.  Thanks for checking in.  Surely, the nets have to keep an eye on the controversial personalities.  More than that, however, I think the controversial personalities should get the message that they should watch their rhetoric.  The nation might well be wanting more civil dialogue these days.  Polarization is making the nation weary.  Network personalities can surely have strong opinions, but the tone and style with which they deliver those opinions is key.  Take Andrew Napolitano (the judge) on FNC.  He has stong opinions, but is always polished and measured in his commentary.

According to a spokesperson at Premiere Networks, which syndicates The Glenn Beck Program, the show can be heard on more than 430 affiliates, including 88 stations that have acquired Beck in the past year. And in radio, all ratings that matter are local--so in markets where he does well, the stations are happy.

interesting point.  thanks.  local markets are different from the national audience a cable net must please.

Is there any indication on who can fill the shoes of "being Glenn Beck", including, perhaps even Glenn Beck on another network?

I doubt if FNC will try to fill 5pm with the next Glenn Beck.  I will also be surprised if Beck shows up on another network.

Keep in mind that Beck came to FNC from CNN's Headline News channel.  He doesn't have many other places to go.  MSNBC?

Will Beck just fade away like one-time ranter Morton Downey Jr.? (BTW, where is Morton nowadays?)

No, I don't think Beck will disappear.  Books.  On-line stuff.  His radio show.  He will continue to speak.

OK that we don't know about Morton these days.

But what were the ratings in comparison to the competition. Fox simply kills CNN and the ridiculous MSNBC almost everywhere but in the morning, doesn't it? His ratings may have declined dramatically but a reason for him still being on the air was he's competitive at his hour of the day.


Sure, his ratings were still relatively solid, but not as good as a year ago.  TV programmers often discontinue shows when the ratings slide begins, not when it ends.  My guess is that FNC felt there was more potential for the 5pm slot than what Beck promised going forward.

I have a bad feeling he left TV so he could run for President.  Thoughts?

Well, I don't think he left on his own.  I can't imagine a presidential run.....but who would have ever thought Trump would be getting that sort of traction at this point?

Which conspiracy theory led to the highest level of activity with respect to sponsors pulling their ads?

Accumulation of everything. 

And FNC wants to go another direction at 5pm.  They need a less polarizing show between Cavutor and the well-regarded Special Report with Bret Baier.

Thanks to everybody for joining in the discussion.  I enjoyed the opportunity.

Jeff McCall

DePauw University

In This Chat
Jeff McCall
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where he has been a faculty member since 1985 and adviser for the campus radio station. Author of Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences, McCall is a media critic who is cited frequently in print and broadcast media across the country. He writes op-eds about media issues that are printed nationally. Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu.
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