Should we blame it on the Massa Moment?
Will that Hindenburg performance soon be seen as the turning point for Glenn Beck: the pivotal moment when the Fox News show began to permanently leak viewers?
Who can forget the March day that will live in cable news infamy, when Beck invited embattled Democratic Congressman Eric Massa onto his show, for an entire hour, to blow the whistle on Democratic Party corruption? Or so Beck thought. Instead, Massa went on and on about tickle fights, and Beck became a laughing stock -- the butt of endless Geraldo-opens-Al-Capone's-vault jokes.
Prior to the Massa Moment, Glenn Beck was averaging 2.6 million viewers each week, and the show was still flying high. And in the short term, the wildly hyped Massa episode produced ratings gold, generating 3.4 million viewers that night, thank you very much. Long-term though, the effects have proven to be disastrous.
As I noted two weeks ago, Glenn Beck's ratings are down this spring. Now it's clear those declines are accelerating and there are no signs of a rebound. So what does that mean for Beck, Fox News, and the Tea Party movement?
First, the latest Nielsen low: Glenn Beck just posted another ratings low for this year. The new mark was set last Thursday when the show attracted 1.82 million viewers. The host's previous, non-vacation low for 2010 had been 1.97 million viewers. That low-ebb mark was set on April 9.
Based on the Nielsen numbers, here's a look at Beck's average daily viewership over the last five weeks. (Any weekend re-broadcasts, as well as weekday shows when Beck was on vacation, are not included in the tabulation.)
(The temporary spike shown above represents the day after health care reform passed in the Congress.)
Let's put Beck's ratings into context. Yes, in the world of cable news, his numbers are impressive, and virtually any host would be happy to have them. But look how far Glenn Beck has fallen recently. In late January and into February, the program was averaging 3 million viewers each week. And late last year, the show spent month after month flirting with that figure. Today, the viewership is trending around 2 million (Last week it was exactly 2.01 million viewers.) -- which means that in a span of just three months, Glenn Beck has lost nearly one-third of its television audience.
My take? Those missing one million aren't coming back. Not permanently anyway. Meaning, this is not a temporary hiccup for Glenn Beck, and the host is not likely to see a V-shaped recovery in terms of the show's ratings. Beck mania seems to have peaked. At least on TV. Will the show enjoy occasional audience spikes? Sure. But I doubt they will be sustainable.
And that has to be sending up all kinds of red flags inside Fox News, which already struggles to find any big-name advertisers to fill out the commercials on the controversial show. Keep in mind, there are more than 200 companies that have gone on the record as saying they will not buy ad time on Glenn Beck's show. Applebee's? No. AT&T? No. Bank of America? No. Best Buy, Campbell Soup, CVS, Ditech, Farmers Insurance Group, GEICO, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Lowe's, Nutrisystem, Procter & Gamble, Progressive Insurance, RadioShack, Sprint, State Farm Insurance, The UPS Store, Travelers Insurance, Verizon Wireless, Vonage, or Wal-Mart?
Corporate America (aka the beloved free marketplace) wants nothing to do with Beck. (Sort of like the NFL wanted nothing to do with Rush Limbaugh last year.) Today, there are less than a handful of nationally recognized advertisers who appear willing to purchase air time on Glenn Beck. Think about the deep, deep discounts Fox News likely has to offer the remaining advertisers in order to get them to come aboard. (And the show is supposed to be a hit.) Now add to that equation the fact that Glenn Beck has lost 1/3 of its audience since January, and you can see where this is heading for Fox News.
How soft are Beck's current ratings? He's now posting the type of numbers that his show used to get when he was on vacation and somebody less famous stood in for him, like when he took a few days off in late March and his show averaged 1.9 million viewers. Beck's been back from his March vacation for weeks now, but his ratings are roughly the same as when he wasn't even there.
What's so amazing about the stampede away from Beck's show is that the political landscape has not changed during that time. In fact, according to press accounts, the Tea Party movement that Beck is so closely aligned with is supposedly in the midst of a surge in momentum and enthusiasm. So why is Glenn Beck losing viewers? It's odd because Beck's nemesis, President Barack Obama, is still in office and still doing his best, in the Beck worldview, to ruin America from within. Democrats are still in charge of Congress and still, in the Beck worldview, ripping up the Constitution. It's not like the evil Democratic threat is gone. Beck's bogeymen remain in place. It's just that one-third of his audience has lost interest and has checked out.
What's wrong with Glenn Beck? And why are viewers fleeing the show? Obviously, I'm not the target demo, but I will now admit that there were times last fall and in early winter when Beck's show did have a kind of demented, "Oh wow" factor to it, and I tuned in regularly just to see what he'd say and do next. The program did, at times, make for compelling television.
But today, making it through one of his insufferable, redundant shows feels like sitting through detention. The wow factor is long gone. Whatever originality the show once had has been replaced with a suffocating sense of sameness as Beck's expanding ego seems to have completely taken control of the operation.
Which brings us back to the Massa Moment, and the absurd broadcasting notion that Beck could generate interesting television for an entire hour while interviewing a congressman he barely even knew. i.e. recipe for disaster. And yes, Beck seems to know that the lecture-like shows he now produces, complete with unreadable chalkboards, don't make for good TV. Last week he jokingly conceded, "This is the worst television ever done. We're doing it every day, congratulations."
Beck appears to be trapped in something of a programming box. If he continues to just keep saying the same thing day after day, more viewers are likely to flee. If he goes long and risks his shows on ridiculous Massa-like interviews, more viewers are likely to be turned off.
But who knows, maybe it wasn't the Massa flame-out that drove viewers away. Instead, maybe it was Beck's hateful and irresponsible attack on Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, in which he urged parishioners to leave their church -- during the Easter season -- if their church mentioned "social justice," which Beck announced was akin to communism and Nazism. Maybe that's what opened the Fox News floodgates, as offended viewers forced their way out.
Or maybe it's been a combination of Beck's incessant whining, married with his delusional conspiracies and his hateful rhetoric that simply do not appeal to people outside of his most hardcore, fanatical, Obama-hating followers. And maybe in the end that group only numbers 1-1.5 million viewers.
Or maybe the sagging numbers represent the let-down that came after Beck's flock watched health care reform pass; the same reform that the GOP Noise Machine had pronounced dead all winter long and that had no chance of passing. (Oops!)
Oh, and did I mention Beck's runaway ego? As Media Matters' Ben Dimiero wrote last week:
Capping a week in which he attempted to explain the "plan" he "think[s]" God wants him to "articulate," Glenn Beck informed listeners of his radio show today that "an individual" at the Vatican purportedly told him that we are entering a "period of great darkness" and that Beck himself was "wildly important" to the upcoming struggle.
Whatever the possible causes of the exodus, Nielsen numbers don't lie about the concrete effects.
Jed Lewison recently pointed out at DailyKos that Beck's April ratings this year are actually slightly lower than April 2009, when the whole Tea Party movement was just getting off the ground [emphasis original]:
From April 1 to April 14, 2009 (the two weeks immediately preceding tea party 2009) the Glenn Beck show averaged 2.23 million viewers.
Meanwhile, from April 1 to April 14, 2010 his show averaged 2.15 million viewers.
That's not a dramatic decline, and Beck clearly still has a loyal audience. But his audience is not growing.
That's right, year-to-date, Beck's audience is not growing. Despite all the media attention, the cover stories on Beck and the endless reporting of the Tea Party movement he supposedly leads, over the last 12 months, Beck has not grown his TV audience. Well, he grew it, and then lost it again, while managing to lose 200 advertisers as well.
In fact, if the precipitous Glenn Beck ratings trend continues, the show will soon be regularly attracting many, many fewer viewers than it did 12 months ago -- an astonishing turn of events for a signature show that's supposed to be at the forefront of a political revolution.
UPDATED: New April Nielsen numbers confirm Beck's rating decline.