Glenn Beck Leaves Fox, Pins Hopes On His Brand

Glenn Beck will leave his talk show when his contract with Fox News ends. Both parties call it a mutual agreement amid declining ratings and rumors of discord between Beck and the network. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik talks about the departure and the world of celebrity brands.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Yesterday, the sometimes incendiary talk host, Glenn - talk show host Glenn Beck told his viewers he will end his show on Fox News later this year. I will continue to tell the story, Beck said. I'm glad to be showing you other ways for us to connect, but I have other things to do. Beck's departure is described as by mutual agreement, and comes with promises of undefined future projects. There are also reports of internal squabbling at Fox News and outside pressure.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from our bureau in New York.

David, nice of you to be with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

CONAN: And Glenn Beck and Fox News made this a seemingly cordial announcement that they've both agreed to end the daily talk show -speculation, though, that the relationship with the people in Fox News has become increasingly rocky.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. And not even speculation, it's just - it's very apparent. Glenn Beck, you know, who has a healthy sense of self - in that program last night, he helpfully compared himself to Paul Revere. You know, it was his sense that he was bigger than Fox News.

And Fox looked at the guy who had soared to ratings heights - exceeding three million in viewers for a time, in the earliest months of the Obama administration, with his concerns and fears about where the president was taking us - became increasingly conspiratorial, increasingly accusatory. You know, he called the president a racist. He said other dark things, and advertisers began to strip away.

CONAN: And once the advertisers start to strip away, it becomes difficult to sustain a program. But wasn't Glenn Beck one of the faces of Fox News?

FOLKENFLIK: He was. You know, he's - call it, you know, a third or 40 percent off the peak of his ratings. But that still leaves him in awfully strong company. He's usually right around two million viewers a night. And for a cable news, that's a pretty healthy audience.

But, you know, he triggered boycotts for calling the president a racist. He triggered condemnations, anti-Semitic for things he had said about prominent Jews, such as the liberal finance here, George Soros. And at a certain point, as Fortune 500 name-brand advertisers back away, hundreds of them in the face of boycotts, you know, Fox felt less of a reason to keep apologizing and more of a reason to say perhaps this isn't going to work out for us.

CONAN: And are - is there any reason to believe these undetermined future projects will come to fruition at Fox?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, there could be some collaboration. They said in that very polite, very mutually laudatory press release that they'd be working on projects together, both for Fox News channel and for their digital platforms.

I'll just remind you that going back decades, TV has a tradition of face-saving arrangements like this. Walter Cronkite was promised a strong documentary presence after giving up the anchor's chair. That sure didn't happen. Dan Rather was told he'd be appearing a lot on "60 Minutes" after he left. That didn't happen. I don't think people at Fox News are expecting to see a lot of Glenn Beck original content on their channel.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik at our bureau in New York about the announcement yesterday that Glenn Beck will be leaving his program at Fox News, possibly as soon as this summer.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And, David, it does appear, though, that Glenn Beck has other things to do.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, indeed. And he - you know, if you think of all the things he's done lately, he has this Mercury Radio Arts production company. And he put on - very successful for a while - a concert tour around the U.S., culminated, in some ways, in its most visible presence with that rally on The Mall to restore America, you know, that was on the same spot and on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech down at the Lincoln Memorial.

He created The Blaze, which is supposed to be a conservative counterpart to Arianna Huffington's Huffington Post. This is a guy with a sense of an empire that he's building outside of the Fox walls.

CONAN: And it's interesting. He decides to focus on those kinds of activities - so far as we know - the same week that we hear that Katie Couric is going to be leaving the anchor chair and possibly starting, well, some new projects of her own, too.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. It's very clear from talking to people both at CBS and people close to Katie Couric she intends to be - find her way back to daytime television. After all, she was a big star as one of the lead faces and figures on the "Today" show on NBC News. And being an anchor, you know, was - burnished her credentials in some ways, but going back to syndicated television in the daytime, it's where real paychecks are - as though 15 million a year for being a news anchor isn't a real one. But there's a lot of money there, and it plays to her skills as an interviewer, too.

CONAN: And this is also, as another daytime TV personality - well, Glenn Beck was on at five. That's an evening TV - anyway, but...

FOLKENFLIK: Sure.

CONAN: ...this, of course, is Oprah Winfrey, is seemingly redefining the entire stage for everybody.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Oprah, of course, was the queen of daytime talk, and her absence gives an opening for somebody like Katie Couric. You know, what Oprah Winfrey is trying to do now is prove that she can capture that same magic and bottle it and create a cable channel around her. That's a tough go. This is kind of her second effort to do that - this one, perhaps, a little bit more in earnest, as she's shut down her own, older talk show in the morning - or in the daytime. But, you know, this is going to be a little tougher than perhaps she anticipated, and I think people are watching to see if she can do it again.

CONAN: And this is, of course, the OWN, or Oprah Winfrey Network. And it raises some of the same issues for her that Glenn Beck is going to have to face, too. Without that presence on daily television, is it going to be possible to keep up the - drawing people to youre a-little-bit-more-difficult-to-get-to venues, whether that's on the Web or on your, you know, cable station 976?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, that's right. People at Fox felt strongly in management that they had helped mint a star, a guy who had gotten impressive, but modest ratings on a much smaller cable channel called Headline News, and that they made him into a star. He feels he is the star. He made himself. You know, he has a radio show that's nationally syndicated. But it's not clear whether he just captured a moment of anxiety about the country and also a backlash against President Obama, or he is an enduring figure and personality.

I'd contrast that with Oprah Winfrey, who showed that beyond the niche audiences of cable news, that she had a broad audience that really could command a following with her book clubs and with her, you know, weeding into political waters with President Obama, as well, his campaign. You know, you do see her influence to a greater degree. It'll be interesting to see if Beck can continue that, and particularly outside of Fox News.

CONAN: And we have to ask, also, about the future of another cable news figure who left amid some controversy, Keith Olbermann, who's going to be trying somewhat the same venue.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. He's trying - he has become the - not only the face, but a senior news executive for Current Television, which as you recall, was supposed to be something of an alternative to commercial TV. The idea is that they get user-generated video, but they also have some of their own reporters doing some things that are, they say, in more documentary depth. And, indeed, they've won some acclaim for that.

Olbermann's show is said to be somewhat similar to what people saw at "Countdown" on MSNBC, but we haven't seen that launch yet and we don't know whether people are going to be willing to turn that high on the digital lineup, you know?

CONAN: And we've always thought that, you know, digital TV would change things. Once you had all of those availabilities, people wouldn't -would wander away, and that 976 would be no different than Channel 5. It turns out that's not quite true.

FOLKENFLIK: It's not quite true for a couple of reasons, and I think one of them is just the DVR, the convenience TiVos and, you know, through your cable channel or people doing it through Hulu. People aren't clicking through the channels so much anymore. So if they know about something, they're going to find it. But if they don't, they might just as well catch clips of it online, helpfully served up by aggregators like Yahoo News or the Huffington Post or Glenn Beck's Blaze for that matter, rather than tuning in for appointment TV.

A lot of things are working against creating new TV empires. A few of them may well succeed.

CONAN: It's interesting. That might have been why the old Court TV re-branding itself was - went out and made the effort to get a couple of the early games in NCAA men's tournament so that people would find it and at least know that it existed.

FOLKENFLIK: That's hilarious. I didn't even know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: David Folkenflik, thank you so much for your time today, as always.

FOLKENFLIK: My pleasure.

CONAN: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joined us from our bureau in New York.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a talk about the connection between science and art with novelist Cormac McCarthy, filmmaker Werner Herzog and physicist Lawrence Krauss. That's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

We'll see you again on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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