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NYT: The Fading Power of Beck’s Alarms


March 6, 2011- Almost every time I flipped on television last week, there was a deeply angry guy on a running tirade about the conspiracies afoot, the enemies around all corners, and how he alone seemed to understand what was under way.

While it’s true that Charlie Sheen sucked up a lot of airtime last week, I’d been watching Glenn Beck, the Fox News host who invoked Hezbollah, socialists, the price of gas, Shariah law, George Soros, Planned Parenthood, and, yes, Charlie Sheen, as he predicted a coming apocalypse.

Mr. Beck, a conservative Jeremiah and talk-radio phenomenon, burst into television prominence in 2009 by taking the forsaken 5 p.m. slot on Fox News and turning it into a juggernaut. A conjurer of conspiracies who spotted sedition everywhere he looked, Mr. Beck struck a big chord and ended up on the cover of Time magazine and The New York Times Magazine, and held rallies all over the country that were mobbed with acolytes. He achieved unheard-of ratings, swamped the competition and at times seemed to threaten the dominion of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity at Fox.

But a funny thing happened on the way from the revolution. Since last August, when he summoned more than 100,000 followers to the Washington mall for the “Restoring Honor” rally, Mr. Beck has lost over a third of his audience on Fox — a greater percentage drop than other hosts at Fox. True, he fell from the great heights of the health care debate in January 2010, but there has been worrisome erosion — more than one million viewers — especially in the younger demographic.

He still has numbers that just about any cable news host would envy and, with about two million viewers a night, outdraws all his competition combined. But the erosion is significant enough that Fox News officials are willing to say — anonymously, of course; they don’t want to be identified as criticizing the talent — that they are looking at the end of his contract in December and contemplating life without Mr. Beck.

On the other side, people who work for Mr. Beck point out that he could live without Fox News. Unlike some other cable hosts, Mr. Beck has a huge multiplatform presence: he has sold around four million books, is near the top of talk-radio ratings, has a growing Web site called The Blaze, along with a stage performance that still packs houses. Forbes estimated that his company, Mercury Radio Arts, had more than $30 million in revenue.

How could a breakup between Mr. Beck and Fox News — a bond that seemed made in pre-Apocalyptic heaven — come to pass? They were never great friends to start with: Mr. Beck came to Fox with a huge radio show and had been on CNN Headline News, so he did not owe his entire career to Fox and frequently went off-message. The sniping between Fox News executives and Mr. Beck’s team began soon after he went on the air in 2009.

Many on the news side of Fox have wondered whether his chronic outrageousness — he suggested that the president has “a deep-seated hatred for white people” — have made it difficult for Fox to hang onto its credibility as a news network. Some 300 advertisers fled the show, leaving sponsorship to a slew of gold bullion marketers whose message dovetails nicely with Mr. Beck’s end-of-times gospel. Both parties go to some lengths to point out that that the discussion has nothing to do with persistent criticism from the left.

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