|By Euan Wilson, originally published in the May 2011 Socionomist|
The Rise and Fall of a Cable News Personality
It’s been a rough six months for Glenn Beck. After a meteoric rise to the top of cable news just two years ago, Fox News announced his show’s end in early April. Beck wasn’t involved in a scandal or other major slip-up that led Fox to relieve him of his duties. So, what brought about his show’s spectacular blow-up? As Figure 3 illustrates, the answer is simple: The public lost its appetite for his message.
We have used socionomics to explain the rise and fall of celebrities before. Among positive-mood heroes, The Socionomist has mentioned another TV icon, Oprah Winfrey. In The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior, Robert Prechter discussed Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson and even Franz Liszt as bull-market heroes. We’ve given less press to bear market personalities, but they do exist, for example Roman Polanski, Hunter S. Thompson, Huey Long, George Carlin and the original combative talk-show host, Morton Downey Jr. And now, it seems, Glenn Beck is following his own bear-market course.
A bear-market personality, like a bullish one, is charismatic. But bull-market icons tend to be friendly, composed, and agreeable. Bear-market icons, in contrast, tend to be controversial, edgy, and provocative. They excel at stirring things up. Beck has been all of these things, and his popularity has risen and fallen inversely to social mood.
Glenn Beck: The TV Show
During bear markets, courting controversy finds ready listeners. Before Fox News picked up Beck’s program, Beck had a similarly formatted (and named) show on CNN’s Headline News channel. His tenure there lasted three years, and during the bear market of his final full year with CNN in 2008, Beck doubled his audience. By the time he moved to Fox, the Dow was nearing its low for the decade, and his Headline News show had the second-highest ratings of any on the network.
Nielson ratings show that in March 2009, Beck’s program was one of the highest-rated 5 p.m. cable news shows. The website, TVbythenumbers.com, points out that Beck’s viewers outnumbered all his news competitors combined. But by January 2011, Beck’s numbers were down 39%, the steepest drop of any cable news show during the period.
The timing of Fox’s decision to hire Beck in early 2009 was socionomically significant. At a time of anger, fear and uncertainty about the future, Fox hired someone who seemed to understand the what and how behind all those negative emotions, someone who had his finger on the pulse of the nation’s zeitgeist. And Fox’s audience was, initially, very grateful. Over the course of his program’s run, as the markets rallied, advertisers steadily pulled their support. Five months after the market low in March 2009, Beck accused president Obama of racism. This accusation prompted 57 advertisers to boycott the show. As mood continued to brighten over the next 12 months, more advertisers jumped ship—until, by last summer, the New York Times reported, 296 advertisers were gone.
Just 2 ¼ years after launching the Glenn Beck Show, Fox News announced on April 6, 2011 that Beck would be transitioning off the air. The announcement came after a nearly uninterrupted rally in the stock market from the March 2009 low.
Beck is certainly controversial. He plays to this strength with catchy and seditious book topics. In times when social mood is net negative, it pays off. Six of Beck’s books have hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, including his most recent No. 1 hit in the spring of 2010 (see Figure 3). Notice that the bestsellers were released near or on the way toward market lows. But consider Beck’s two most recent books, one from last fall and another from early this year. Both faltered, after a long expansion of positive mood. Social mood has finally become so positive that readers no longer take Beck’s books to No.1—after doing so repeatedly when mood was darker. Why? Because mood has changed what people want from book authors.
A Disappointing Crowd
In November 2009, Beck announced his “Restoring Honor” rally. He originally planned to promote the rally as a political vision-casting gathering and to announce a century-long strategy for saving the country. As mood continued to brighten, however, his favor waned and he changed the rally’s theme “to [create] awareness and raise funds” for charity. As the rally drew closer and mood continued to wax positive, fellow journalists began to attack and mock his efforts. The most reliable sources estimate that the August 2010 rally attracted an estimated 87,000 people, though some media reported as few as several tens of thousands attended, and others as many as half a million.
By the time of the function, increasing positive mood was prompting more people to turn against Beck. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted a counter rally parodying Beck, titled the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in October. The same media service that estimated 87,000 attendees at Beck’s rally estimated 215,000 for Stewart and Colbert’s event. By then, Beck’s bleak predictions and agenda of urgency were so out of step with social mood that two-and-a-half times as many people turned out to mock the former icon as did to support him. The new state of social mood explains the disparity.
The End: Glenn Beck and Another Bear Market Personality
What does the mainstream think about Beck’s loss of popularity? James Downie of The New Republic summed up the change in Beck’s fortunes: “Beck built a following by making outlandish, conspiratorial claims—about ACORN, Obama, and so on. … Now, each new idea appears to be costing Beck both eyeballs and credibility.” David Carr of The New York Times wrote, “The problem with ‘Glenn Beck’ is that it has turned into a serial doomsday machine that’s a bummer to watch.” And Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, whose insights helped inspire this article, pointed out the following:
But as the recession began to ease, Beck’s apocalyptic forecasts and ominous conspiracies became less persuasive, and his audience began to drift away. Beck responded with a doubling-down that ultimately brought about his demise on Fox.5
Glenn Beck has so far failed to adapt his position and personality to the times. He has not responded to the change from negative social mood to positive. When he recognized that something was going against him, he upped the ante on his previously successful bear market themes. Milbank’s article offers myriad examples: Beck accused billionaire George Soros of being a Nazi collaborator. He stated that Reform Rabbis operate similarly to radical Islam. And he accused the American left of forming an alliance with caliphate forces in the Middle East.
Milbank’s article compares Beck to another bear market personality, Father Charles Coughlin, whose anti-Semitic message in the 1930s won him millions of radio listeners. Milbank notes that “Economic hardship gave [Couglin] an audience even greater than Beck’s, but as his calls to ‘drive the money changers from the temple’ became more vitriolic, his broadcast sponsors dropped him.” Coughlin’s program was at its peak around the same time that mood hit a low in 1932. From 1932 to 1937, the Dow quadrupled, and by 1936, Coughlin’s influence had waned. After endorsing William Lemke for president, Coughlin announced he would retire if Lemke failed to win 9,000,000 votes. Lemke received just 900,000 votes, forcing Coughlin’s temporary retirement. Around the same time, anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist themes began to suffuse Coughlin’s broadcasts, and he began rationalizing the actions of Hitler and Mussolini. As his listeners and sponsors abandoned him, Coughlin “doubled down” in the same manner as Beck today. But mood wouldn’t have it. Like Beck’s followers, his listeners deserted him in droves.
Beck has a chance to rebound: He still has his radio show. If mood turns negative again fast enough and hard enough, he could leverage the darker feelings into a comeback, especially if some of his earlier forecasts begin coming to fruition. If he can stay in the limelight long enough, bear market crises may return him—or someone like him—to prominence.■
5Milbank, D. (2011, April 6). Why Glenn Beck lost it. The Washington Post, Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-glenn-beck-lost-it/2011/04/06/AFNEgnqC_story.html on May 24, 2011.
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