How low (in the ratings) can Glenn Beck go?

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Looks like the CNN news team threw the wrong anchor overboard last week.

Looks like the CNN news team threw the wrong anchor overboard last week.

Instead of unceremoniously dumping Paula Zahn for her soft prime-time ratings, the CNN brain trust should have axed Glenn Beck, whose viewership is far smaller than Zahn's. In fact, on the night that Zahn announced she was leaving CNN, Paula Zahn Now easily bested Glenn Beck in the ratings, as it had often done for months.

Truth is, Beck's show has been in a ratings slump for most of this year. (The show's audience peaked 10 months ago.) Yet the right-wing talker who bashes progressives, Muslims, immigrants, and environmentalists when he's not pimping for the John Birch Society remains a CNN favorite among his television bosses. If CNN were a meritocracy, it would be Beck out looking for a job, not Zahn. Instead, CNN appears to be sponsoring some sort of affirmative action program for an audience-challenged conservative who is allowed to drive his ratings into the ground without fear of being ousted.

Here's how Zahn and Beck shaped up during the second quarter this year. Beck's weeknight show on CNN Headline News attracted, on average, 305,000 viewers, 111,000 of which were among the crucial 25-54 viewer demographic that advertisers prefer. By comparison, Zahn during the second quarter grabbed 557,000 viewers each night, 190,000 between the ages of 25-54. Yet it's Zahn, and her comparatively solid nightly newscast, who gets pushed out the door.

To recap CNN's strange affection for the unpopular right-wing TV host, Beck was hired by CNN Headline News in January 2006 as part of the channel's effort to open up its prime-time schedule and move beyond simply looping the latest headlines. The previous year, CNN Headline News welcomed tabloid crime chaser Nancy Grace. Phase two was to be the arrival of the radio talk-show host Beck, whom CNN suits famously described as being "cordial" and "not confrontational." An avowed non-journalist, hardcore conservative, and self-described rodeo clown who has fantasized on-air about killing Michael Moore, Beck has proven to be anything but "cordial."

He has wondered why former President Jimmy Carter did not attend a "suicide bomber graduation ceremony." He compared Al Gore to Adolf Hitler. He suggested that a black, Muslim member of Congress was loyal to Al Qaeda. And he recently aired, on this radio show, a very creepy monologue about Rep. Dennis Kucinich's sex life:

BECK: What would be the drug that would be just powerful enough to make you not really realize that you're making out with Dennis Kucinich? ... I was thinking cyanide. That would be the only thing that would really dull the senses enough. Even then, your dead body would be like, 'Dennis Kucinich has his tongue in my mouth.' "

And then there was Beck's embrace last week of the radical-right John Birch Society, right on CNN Headline News. Just how extreme was Beck's move? I did a transcript search on Nexis and determined that in the nearly 230,000 hours that CNN has broadcast since its inception 27 years ago, Beck's program was the first time any CNN anchor or reporter interviewed a spokesman from the John Birch Society and presented that person as an authority on anything. And for good reason: The John Birch Society has for decades danced on the far-right fringe of American politics. It has urged cutting off all U.S. foreign aid; it vehemently opposed the Civil Rights movement; and the society claimed presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson were all communist sympathizers. But suddenly, thanks to Glenn Beck, John Birch Society flacks are being tapped as (immigration) experts on CNN.

Regardless of the damage Beck was doing to the larger CNN brand, late last year, CNN Headline News chiefs were crowing in the press about what a breakout cable news star Beck had become, that he had the hottest show on the dial, and that his show had grown CNN Headline News' ratings by 80 percent. (The New York Times and The Washington Post dutifully typed up the good news with flattering profiles; to date neither newspaper has reported on Beck's subsequent ratings demise.)

Soon after the 2006 midterm elections, though, the bottom began to fall out. The most glaring, telltale moment of Beck's ratings collapse came on May 2, when his much-hyped special taking a skeptical look at global warming was a major ratings disappointment, finishing in last place at both 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. among total viewers, losing to the regularly scheduled cable news offerings on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.

Maybe it's those dismal ratings that forced Beck, in yet another CNN first, to start shilling for sponsors on-air, in the middle of his program, like a dollar-a-holler AM disc jockey: "I am proud to announce that tonight's show is brought to you by the Sleep Number Bed and Select Comforts." What's next, Beck testimonials for pesticides and recliners? (CNN must have been so proud.)

The Beck ratings slump continues

Beck has tried to brush off his ratings slide as no big deal. According to blogger and Glenn Beck foe Chris Achorn, the hardcore conservative host, on his daily radio show, dismissed "left-wing blogs that have proclaimed my television show dead because of a bad four-week ratings period."

More like a bad four-month ratings period. Beck had an awful April, a miserable May, a tepid June, and an up-and-down July.

It was in July that Beck subbed in for a vacationing Zahn at the 8 o'clock hour on the mother ship, CNN. (This was right before Zahn's bosses gave her the boot.) Beck's ratings were so weak, and he dragged CNN down so badly, that MSNBC actually beat CNN for the week in prime-time ratings in the 25-54 demo; a feat MSNBC rarely accomplishes. In fact, prior to Beck's appearance, the last time MSNBC beat CNN was in April, when MSNBC hosted a prime-time Democratic debate, which artificially spiked the channel's weekly ratings. But the week Beck joined the CNN prime-time lineup -- bingo! -- MSNBC leap-frogged the competition.

The reason Zahn is being replaced is because her program often comes in third place during the 8 p.m. time slot, not only losing badly to Fox News, but also slipping behind MSNBC. As The New York Times reported: "The estimated 558,000 viewers her program has been drawing, on average, each weeknight this year, according to Nielsen Media Research, represents less than a quarter of the nearly 2.3 million who watch 'The O'Reilly Factor' with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News. Ms. Zahn's program also draws about 100,000 fewer viewers a night than 'Countdown With Keith Olbermann' on MSNBC."

So Zahn got shown the door for coming in third place. But Beck does her one better; his show often comes in fourth place in its time slot. And forget about losing to Countdown by 100,000 viewers. On two of the nights that Beck filled in for Zahn on CNN at 8 p.m., the show lost to Countdown by nearly 400,000 viewers.

When Beck substituted for Zahn, he was actually hosting three prime-time programs that week on the CNN schedule: at 8 p.m. on CNN, and Beck's usual CNN Headline News program at 7 p.m., which then repeats at 9 p.m. It was pretty much all Beck, all the time. Aside from the dreadful numbers he pulled CNN, how did his CNN Headline News show do that week? Even worse. For instance, on the night of July 3, as the news of Scooter Libby's commutation was being aggressively dissected by news junkies, Beck's Headline News show at 9 p.m. attracted just 58,000 viewers between the ages of 25-54, which is just a jaw-dropping number for prime-time cable television. By comparison, Fox News' Hannity & Colmes was able to attract 369,000 demo viewers that night at 9 p.m.

And the July 3 showing was no holiday-week fluke. On July 20, Beck's 9 p.m. telecast managed to nearly match that anemic showing, attracting just 60,000 demo viewers. Worse, on June 5, Beck's 9 p.m. show was watched by a microscopic 50,000 viewers between the ages of 25-54. But nothing could sink lower than Beck's June 4, 7 p.m. ratings performance, when his show was watched by just 40,000 demo viewers, an unspeakably lame ratings figure.

Is there any ratings depth Beck could hit that would finally trigger CNN execs to rethink their failed experiment?

And even when Beck has, on occasion, bounced back with strong ratings, he's often so far behind his competitors he can barely see them. For instance, when news broke on June 8 that celebrity socialite Paris Hilton was being taken back to jail to serve out her drunken-driving sentence, Beck's ratings that night spiked. At 7 p.m. his show grabbed 427,000 viewers, one of his best showings in months. The only problem was he still lost to the competition, whose ratings rose even more thanks to the Hilton-driven media frenzy.

And don't think just because Beck's show airs on CNN's little sister, Headline News, that the channel's not capable of grabbing big ratings. Nancy Grace has turned into a sizeable hit for the Headline News, attracting approximately 493,000 viewers each night; 187,000 in the 25-54 demo. In fact, Headline News' prime-time lineup sometimes resembles a yo-yo, going up and down each night between Grace (up) and Beck (down). Both gab-fests air twice each night; Beck at 7 and 9 p.m., Grace at 8 and 10 p.m. After Beck's poorly rated 7 o'clock broadcast is over, ratings shoot up for Grace. When her broadcast is over, ratings drop back down for Beck at 9 o'clock. And then, like clockwork, ratings jump right back up again for Grace at 10 o'clock. In the television business, it's called losing your lead-in; being unable to retain viewers who watched the previous show on the same channel.

All of which begs this question: In the hyper-competitive, big-money world of cable television news, who at CNN is protecting the underperforming Glenn Beck, and why?

UPDATE: In a July 31 press release, CNN Headline News boasted that for the month of July, ratings for Glenn Beck, in its 7 p.m. ET time slot, were up 11 percent among viewers 25-54 (to 110,000), and 25-54 ratings were up 30 percent in the 9 p.m. slot (to 113,000). What CNN Headline News did not mention is that last September Glenn Beck averaged 149,000 viewers in the 25-54 demo in both the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. time slots. So even with his July ratings increase, Beck is still playing catch-up.

Network/Outlet
CNN, CNN Headline News
Person
Glenn Beck, Paula Zahn
Show/Publication
Paula Zahn Now, Glenn Beck show
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