From 2009 to 2011, Glenn Beck’s show on Fox, Glenn Beck, was the third most popular program on cable news, averaging over 2.2 million viewers a night.
During his time at Fox, Beck received intense media scrutiny. Some of Beck’s more controversial claims include calling Hurricane Irene a “blessing from God,” declaring that Obama has a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” and telling the families of 9/11 victims to “shut up” because “they’re always complaining.” Beck’s remarks led almost 300 advertisers to boycott Fox, prompting the network to cut Beck last June.
Since leaving Fox, Beck has built his own multimedia empire. A central component of Beck’s new enterprise is an online broadcasting platform, GBTV. With a $9.95 monthly fee, subscribers can view three daily programs: Beck’s three-hour talk show, a reality show that traces a family’s life “off the grid,” and a children’s news and history program.
This March, the Wall Street Journal offered the first account of GBTV’s success since the platform launched five months ago. According to the Journal, GBTV already has 300,000 subscribers, and by the end of the year the new network will generate at least $40 million in revenue. By cutting out the middleman and erecting a large pay wall, Beck is making far more money now than he was with Fox on a fixed $2.5 million salary.
On his online talk show, Beck opines on current news events though an extreme right-wing lens, often distorting facts to fit his beliefs. On his program this Monday, for example, he declared that Al Jazeera is funded by Yemen and that people who believe in global warming also think the earth is flat. At one point on the Monday program, he interrupted his news analysis to declare, “If I’m right, and you stand up and you fight, and you really know it, and you won’t sit down because you know it, you are a threat, and you, in the end, will be red flagged. You will be at best ostracized, and at worst, rounded up and liquidated, as the communists like to call it.” He makes Fox News look balanced and moderate.
The program creates the image that Glenn Beck is living in a bunker. Beck wears a polo shirt and jeans, and he broadcasts from a windowless living room. The advertisements on the program tout the benefits of gold, emergency food supplies, home power generators, handguns, and other necessities to prepare for Armageddon.
But GBTV is itself a bunker. It is an independent platform that insulates itself from the requirements of mainstream broadcasting, like accurate reporting and avoidance of incendiary rants that cause advertisers to flee. While the show also airs on broadcast radio, GBTV protects Beck from accountability by generating a large stream of revenue independent of paid advertising.
News organizations from CNN to Fox have lost interest in Beck because he competes in a separate market. He remains inaccessible to those who do not pay to subscribe, and many assume his departure from Fox means he is irrelevant and discredited. But the large number of GBTV subscribers suggests Beck’s program deserves closer scrutiny.
Online platforms that erect pay walls could prove to be a lucrative refuge for other celebrity personalities that have been shunned by mainstream advertisers. Since Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” on national radio this February, over 100 advertisers fled from his radio show. If the show founders, Limbaugh could follow Beck’s lead and transition to the world of unsupervised pay wall broadcasting. Limbaugh could be free to call Fluke whatever he likes whenever he feels like saying it. As figures like Glenn Beck move to new platforms, mainstream media needs to continue to track them and hold them responsible for their remarks. Refusing to engage these popular demagogues risks a caustic polarization of America that could preclude the possibility of productive and balanced political dialogue.