You've heard that Fox News fired Glenn Beck, right? You heard that Fox couldn't manage him anymore. You read that network president Roger Ailes canned him to stem the rush of advertisers fleeing his program. You saw on the evening news that his program has been shedding viewers so fast Beck can hardly stop crying.
Those headlines and news leads have been repeated so often it’s safe to assume they’re all true. Even Beck’s kids must think their old man got a pink slip.
Except that he didn’t.
The grossly misleading headlines are typical of competing networks and talking heads that prefer a controversial story about sinking ships to the truth. Of course they’re rooting for Fox and Beck’s collective failures; that’s the game plan in a highly competitive marketplace.
The real surprise would have been if the Los Angeles Times or other news outlets had reported the situation more accurately. Isn’t it a better story when you hear Beck was fired because he didn’t get along with network brass? Don’t your ears perk up when some talking head reports that Beck’s gig has suddenly become the biggest television flop since "The Chevy Chase Show"?
Unfortunately, the truth is much less controversial.
The fair and balanced reality is Beck’s contract was set to expire this year. He and his vastly underrated business and creative teams at Mercury Radio Arts have long considered a change when he became, in effect, a free agent. It’s not what his detractors want you to hear, but if Beck and his production company had wanted to keep the daily show, he would have signed a new deal and continued clubbing the competition.
While Beck’s ratings have slipped from the sky highs of the health care debate, he still pulls 2 million viewers for a live broadcast at 5 p.m. EDT. Consider that a moment. He’s capturing those ratings with a show that airs on the East Coast while most are commuting home and at 2 p.m. on the West Coast, when folks are still tied to their cubicles.
Although he airs during Denny’s senior discount hour, he’s still pulverizing the prime time 8, 9 and 10 p.m. shows on the other cable news networks. He has unprecedented numbers for such an early broadcast. Are we really to believe Fox killed a show breaking ratings records in a time slot no one wants?
Three business partners and I had the opportunity to meet with Beck about a potential project a few weeks before the news broke his show was ending. Sitting in his high-rise office overlooking Manhattan, I was reminded once again how he’s a wildly creative thinker. Whether or not you agree with Beck on politics and policy, it’s almost indisputable he’s more Walt Disney than Rush Limbaugh.
I’ve seen how his mind runs faster than the pens and laptops around him can keep pace. Ideas for stories, books, films and events go from his head to drawing board to marketable widget faster than should be legal.
The atmosphere he fosters is a blessing and a curse for his team. He’s a tornado of creative energy that keeps their working environment invigorating and challenging. The good news is that no two days are ever alike. The bad news is he’s likely to sit in a staff meeting tomorrow morning and suggest a new line of Glenn Beck cotton sweaters that have the entire Constitution knitted into the right sleeve. Oh, and he wants a prototype by lunch.
That flavor of corporate culture is rare in a media world where most ideas must be generated, spelled out in pitches, run by producers, budgeted, then run by more producers, approved by senior executives, etc. None of that traditional bureaucracy fits the way Beck and his team does business.
Hidden between the rumors and speculation is the decidedly non-controversial fact that the grind of a daily show handcuffs Beck, his team, his schedule and their combined energies. Beck will continue to appear on Fox as a guest on other programs, he will produce and appear on programming of interest to Fox’s core audience, and he will remain a member of Fox’s extended family. What he won’t have to do is put on makeup and be locked in a studio at 5 p.m. every weekday.
Perhaps the enduring lesson of this story is that relying on the truth from those rooting for your failure is a bad idea — almost as bad as those sweaters.
Author Jason Wright was the co-author for Glenn Becks 2008 book The Christmas Sweater. He recounts some of his past interactions with Beck in a 2010 Mormon Times column. Jason Wright can be reached at www.jasonfwright.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.