Glenn Beck unleashes his dogs of war

Published: Tuesday, May 29 2012 9:48 p.m. MDT

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck meets with fans at Deseret Book in downtown Salt Lake City Friday, July 16, 2010. Sarah A. Miller, Deseret News

Sarah A. Miller, Deseret News

Read more: Glenn Beck: Living large in Texas, and richer than ever

Late last year at a swank hotel in Manhattan, Glenn Beck sat in a golden chair on a dais, looking a bit like a king.

Beck had come to the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Park Avenue to accept the Defender of Israel Award, a prestigious recognition that had previously gone to such foreign-policy luminaries as Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bob Dole.

As the Zionist Organization of America's distinguished honoree, Beck watched a procession of A-list power players precede him to the podium. Warm-up acts included U.S. presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and, in a special video message singing Beck's praises, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Casino king and Venetian Hotel boss Sheldon Adelson — the 16th richest person on earth, and the man responsible for recently funneling $10 million into the super PAC that supports Newt Gingrich's — had the honor of introducing Beck, who had the honor of delivering the keynote address.

Finally, Beck rose to speak. He wore a silver bow tie, white point-collar dress shirt, black coat and tortoise shell eyeglasses. The salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin glittered as bright-white camera flashes enveloped him every couple seconds.

Standing at the microphone Beck started slowly, meekly reading some prepared notes. But ever the performer, he wouldn't disappoint. He built momentum to a crescendo, and left the stage with a rousing ovation ringing in his ears.

To the casual observer these images of rich and powerful titans feting Glenn Beck in uptown Manhattan may come as a surprise. In fact, it wasn't that long ago that the mainstream media was more or less declaring him dead, or at least irrelevant. Last summer, Fox News cancelled Beck's show, meaning he'd suddenly lost an audience of 2 million. But as last December's event in Manhattan illustrates, Beck's political influence is still significant, and that's partly because his media empire isn't crumbling at all--in fact it's expanding and his reach could get bigger than ever before.

The Reinvention of Glenn Beck

Beck's media empire is housed under the umbrella of Mercury Radio Arts Inc., a multi-platform conglomerate he wholly owns. Mercury Radio Arts' holdings include Beck's daily syndicated radio show, "The Glenn Beck Program"; news website TheBlaze.com; and book imprint Mercury Ink.

When Fox News and Beck jointly announced in April that they would amicably split before the end of 2011, popular opinion held that the decision would negatively impact Beck's earning power and cachet in a big way. It turns out, though, that by monetizing his core viewership through GBTV — an Internet television venture that launched Sept. 12 — Beck is actually raking in considerably more money than ever before.

Here's how: GBTV is only available to paying subscribers. For $4.95 a month viewers can watch "Glenn Beck Show," a daily two-hour, televised talk show that bears a strong resemblance to what Beck used to do for Fox. For a $9.95 monthly fee, Beck acolytes gain access to all of GBTV's programming options. Content can be streamed live or on-demand, with video archives dating back 30 days. Mercury Radio Arts confirms that when GBTV started up in September, more than 230,000 paying subscribers were already onboard.

So when Forbes Magazine plugged in forecasts from research analyst Rich Greenfield of the international brokerage firm BTIG, Forbes concluded: "GBTV is already generating revenues of $27 million a year from subscription fees. … Greenfield envisions Beck increasing that conversion rate (by a multiplier of five), yielding a subscriber base of over 1 million. In that scenario (GBTV) would be generating $135 million in subscription revenues."

Buttressing the Forbes assessment, the Wall Street Journal confirmed the immediate profitability of the new Internet television service: "GBTV is on track to take in more than $20 million in revenue in its debut year."

For the sake of comparison, Beck earned "only" $2.5 million from Fox News in 2010 — a mere 6.3 percent of Mercury Radio Arts' income for that year.

Beyond the financial leverage inherent in GBTV, Beck is now also free from advertisers threatening to boycott — a specter that long clouded his tenure at Fox News. That liberation, combined with the fact Beck is now preaching his pre-apocalyptic gospel to a self-selected core audience of paid subscribers, means that Beck fully expects viewers to be increasingly responsive to his proclamations that run the gamut from somber assessments of Pres. Barack Obama to edicts about the virtues of charity and service.

"We are building a true online network that is not for slugs or couch potatoes," Beck said in an email to the Deseret News. "We want true engagement from our audience."

Books, radio and the web

While "Glenn Beck Show" is the jewel of GBTV, it's far from the channel's only original programming. In the morning GBTV streams video of Beck's radio program. Other GBTV offerings include a political show for children called "Liberty Treehouse" and "B.S. of A.," a show starring comedian Brian Sack that The Daily Beast describes as "adopting 'The Daily Show' formula to produce red state–friendly comedy."

"Our goal is to be an online version of HBO," Beck said. "We want to offer a wide range of programming that may not have a lot in common beyond being high-quality, informative and entertaining."

Premier Radio Networks syndicates "The Glenn Beck Program" to hundreds of radio stations across the country. The show remains the third-most popular over-the-air radio program among U.S. adults.

At the same time, Beck's news site, TheBlaze.com, is still growing by leaps and bounds 18 months following its launch. After hosting 3.6 million unique visitors in June, the website's traffic quickly surged 44 percent and The Blaze set a new record for monthly visitors with 5.2 million apiece in both August and October.

Although Beck is largely hands-off with the operation of TheBlaze.com — a website he once described as a place "where you can find breaking news, original reporting, insightful opinions and engaging videos about the stories that matter most" — he's the one who pulled the trigger in early 2011 on hiring former Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan to come be president of The Blaze.

"Glenn created and started The Blaze, and of course it has his values and overall vision," Morgan said. "Our audience is very much a heartland audience, a mainstream audience, a faith-based audience similar to Glenn's audience. It is for conservative-minded people. … But very deliberately Glenn didn't put his name in the title — it's not called 'The Beck Blaze'; it's called 'The Blaze.'

"The goal was to create a new media business where the success was not dependent on Glenn, and I think that's what we've done."

Mercury Ink, Beck's book imprint founded last year in conjunction with Simon & Schuster, is nearly as new GBTV. Its first offering, "Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25" by Richard Paul Evans, hit store shelves Aug. 9 and immediately debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for Children's Chapter Books.

Evans is neither a publishing neophyte nor a Beck crony. His books such as "The Christmas Box" have sold millions upon millions of copies, and the author estimates he has appeared on Beck's shows seven or eight times — and not always with a heartwarming reception from the host. But when Beck personally phoned Evans earlier this year to express interest in publishing "Michael Vey" on Mercury Ink, Evans sensed sincerity and decided it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

"Glenn was legitimately excited about publishing 'Michael Vey,' " Evans said. "First of all, he didn't have his staff call me — he called me. Everything was legitimate. He was excited about it, and you need that kind of excitement, that kind of buy-in from a publisher to really get behind it. …"

"It's great that he has some firepower behind him. His fan base is extremely loyal. It's one thing to have a lot of people watch your show; it's another to have real followers who are passionate. When he says 'this is big,' they believe him. You can measure numbers, but you can't measure that kind of power."

At this point there's simply no on-point comparison to employ as a reference for predict how Beck's vision might play out over time. Although Oprah Winfrey started her own cable channel at the outset of 2011, the financial paradigm of Oprah Winfrey Network is distinct from GBTV's because Oprah isn't monetizing her core base of viewers with subscription fees.

In terms of the near future, Beck is building a studio in Dallas to house his television show and GBTV operations (presently, GBTV shares facilities with other Mercury Radio Arts entities in New York). But beyond that, the only certainty on Planet Beck is that there's no going back now that Mercury Radio Arts has entered unchartered waters.

"GBTV is a fascinating concept," Evans observed. "I think he's pioneering something here, and it'll be interesting to see how it works out."

Read more: Glenn Beck: Living large in Texas, and richer than ever

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