02 July 2011

Glenn Beck's Mercury Rising?

Glenn Beck recently ended his eponymous television show after two and a half year run on FNC.  The often emotive Beck managed to complete his final broadcast without tears, but during the After the Show Show for Insider Extremists, not so much.

Critics of Glenn Beck chortle that he was pulled off the air due to ratings.  The ratings belie that ranting.  Others contend that Fox News fired the controversial commentator for being a loose cannon who alienated advertisers.  This progressive perspective seems to forget their concerted campaign to sponsors to boycott the Glenn Beck program.  Once liberals had convinced enough corporations to not sponsor “the five”, they used the stature of Congressman Anthony Weiner (sic) to attack Goldline, a loyal Beck advertiser.  Beck was insistent that he was moving on without bad blood with Roger Ailes and FNC.  So much so, Beck pointed out that his entire final hour show was broadcast live.  This is not something that a network would want to do with a proven bad actor like Keith Olbermann, or without needing to liberally use a dump button as MSNBC should have recently done.

Beck believes that he is no longer called to continue his commentary from Rockefeller Center. So at the pinnacle of a media career, he is willing to risk it all to do an internet video venture which stops analyzing and starts acting on the problems which he perceives are forthcoming.  For this analysis, It is inconsequential whether you consider Glenn Beck as he had self-effacingly described himself as a “rodeo clown” or if you think that Beck is a Tea Party Incarnation of UBS anchorman Howard Beale from Network.  The question is really about the sagacity of Beck’s vision of  new media marketing and delivery as being an effective communication strategy.

Several media players have tried to launch subscriber based internet content, with varying degrees of success.  The New York Times has twice tried to force subscription for reading its content online, with the latest push occurring in March.  But the last time they tried having a hard subscription wall, the paper lost prominence, did not boost their dead tree subscriptions and had to abandon their attempted internet monetization. The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times have been successful with cyber subscription models, but they have specialized content and an affluent target demographic to pay for it.  Many talk radio hosts have internet subscription platforms, mostly for distributing podcast, which generally cost $5 a month or $50 for the year.  Rush Limbaugh has been quite successful with Rush 24/7 at the same price which features podcasts, the live “Dittocam” and access to his show prep reading colloquially known as “the stack of stuff”.

Glenn Beck is augmenting a subscriber internet model largely for video distribution.  Prior to the finale of his FNC show, Beck had the Insider Extreme package for his three hour morning radio show running at about $7/month or $75/year.  Subscribers could obtain audio podcasts of the show to listen on their own terms.  But the Insider Extreme also included live or on demand video of the radio program from a six camera system from their Radio City studio in mid-town Manhattan.  The subscription added a 4th hour featuring his long time sidekicks Stu Burgurie (also executive producer) and Pat Gray.  Early this year, Beck gave S.E. Cupp her own show on the Insider Extreme.  Beck threw in Fusion online, his comedy magazine. Beck did a few live performances of his comedy shows on the road.  Many part of his 8/28 Restoring Honor Rally were covered online.  In addition, Beck had been producing web documentaries on complex current event and historical subjects and there were mostly historical “classes” as part of Glenn Beck University. This lineup of programming has garnered 80,000 subscribers.  Not a bad chunk of change.

The Mercury Radio Arts (the corporate name for GBTV) model can only really be compared with Pajamas Media PJTV venture.  The venture got its name from the derisive dismissal of bloggers who caught Dan Rather’s sloppy and false journalism  about President George W. Bush’s National Guard Records as being “[G]uys in their living room, sitting in their pajamas.  When Roger Simon launched PJTV in 2008, they wanted to move away from being a news aggregator into being a subscriber based internet news alternative.  Instead of being part of the liberal Lamestream Media, PJTV sought to be a conservative network which was self supported by subscriptions.   Even though PJTV landed some prominent figures, such as Glenn Reynolds and Joe the Plummer, PJTV did not have a sustainable financial model.  PJTV continues to produce some online videos but new material seems free for the taking and is supplementary to associated Pajamas blogs.

Beck’s multi-media vision goes beyond television.  Beck believes that he has reached everyone he can via standard television, but that audience is mostly over 50 (prime Tea Party demographics).  Beck yearns to reach an audience under 30, who rarely sit down to watch conventional television, even if it is recorded on a DVR.  Beck thinks that by tweaking his programming and changing his delivery system, his message will be free to reach the wizened and those comparatively wet behind the ears.

Considering what the Insider Extreme already offered and what the Beckian dream machine has already alluded, there might be enough to program a typical television network.  But that won’t due, as there could be battles for carriage.  I would imagine that NBC/Comcast would not be too cooperative to host a Glenn Beck inspired network, especially if it challenged MSNBC or Al Gore’s CurrentTV with Keith Olbermann. The SorosSchlessinger

Conventional networks usually require partners that can put the kibosh on anything controversial.  While the FCC is supposedly scrapping the Fairness Doctrine for broadcast media, there is always concerns about the nanny state strangling undesired conservative/libertarian ideas.  So Beck moving the base of operations to the internet is a facile but flawed plan.  The FCC is floating semi-final drafts of net-neutrality regulations, which indubitably would impact free internet sites, but it is a hard argument to require balance for a subscription site.

Glenn Beck has voiced concerns that GBTV might be slightly ahead of the curve on new media models  "[b]ut I’d rather be ahead of the pack than part of it."  A subscription model allows content to be unfettered with the added virtue that the programming is truly viewer supported (unlike PBS).  PJTV failed in part due to the delivery system, as it had high definition picture, but it could have streaming hiccups and it required subscribers to sit in front of their computers.  GBTV is partnering with MLB Advanced Media, which reputedly has perfected high quality internet delivery of video and ancillary data to computers, televisions (via Roku) and cell phones and mobile devices.  It is very ironic that a sports neophyte like Beck chose bet the farm and chose to partner with Major League Baseball for his network, but he swears that it is the best.  So it is multi-platform delivery of live and on demand programming.  That should get enough youthful and seasoned eyeballs for the programming. Better delivery of programming is not enough as they must want to watch.

On September 12th, when GBTV officially kicks off, Beck will do his own show from 5pm to 7pm.  Supposedly the focus will less be on bemoaning Spooky Dude and more upon activism supporting preparations for what Beck believes will be tough times for the nation.  That preaching to the choir may satisfy and marginally add voices to the choir.  But based on comments in the blogosphere after the GBTV announcement, that won’t be enough to grow the subscriber base to a sustainable financial level.

GBTV is offering a two tiered pricing structure-$5 a month/$50 a year for a basic package that includes Beck’s new streaming show and on demand viewing or eventually $9.99 a month/$100 a year for the full package. Casual viewers bristled at paying to see what was previously “free”.  The tough economic times makes adding another subscription service as a tough sell.

 But where Pajamas Media failed was relegating PJTV to being just a conservative alternate news source.  Beck wants to make things entertaining too to win over younger viewers.  Beck cagily told the New York Times “If you’re a fan of Jon Stewart, you’re going to find something on GBTV that you’re going to enjoy. If you’re a fan of ‘24,’ you’re going to find something on GBTV that you’re going to enjoy.”  Those plans certainly must include a satirical news show with Tea Party and Libertarian sensibilities.  This would be most welcomed as Joel Surnow’s “The ½ Hour News Hour” comedy show on FNC was stillborn nearly four years ago.  And Greg Gutfeld’s Red Eye is amusing, but it’s on at 3 a.m.  Adding drama/action shows that fits a Tea Party sensibilities has a chance at winning over the key youth demographic, who’s tastes can be influenced and generally who spend more discretionary income on entertainment.  Beck also wants to do an animated series that updates lessons from the Founding Fathers.

Aside from a flexible and quality delivery platform and a variety of programming aspirations, other advantages that the Mercury Radio Arts crew has over the likes of PJTV is a front man with an established operation.  The incremental building of Insider Extreme content gives the Opinion and Education arms a head start and an established audience of paying subscribers.  While the Instapundit is great, Glenn Reynolds or Joe the Plumber are not Marquee Men.  Beck will never be mistaken as a matinee idol, but he does sell out theaters in periodic live performances, has written or co-authored many bestselling books, has the 3rd most listened to talk radio show and had a widely successful 5 pm TV commentary show featuring 21 minute monologues and chalk boards.  Rest assured, he is quite a credible front man.  But Beck claims that his new hire, Raj Nair, is the face of GBTV.  That might be a stretch but it does signal that GBTV is not intended to be ego gratification or all Glenn all the time.

One is left with the impression that there will not be overt advertising on GBTV, especially as it is a subscription service.  But considering the powerful reach that Beck has demonstrated, there might be other ancillary ways to monetize.  Merely by mentioning F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944), Beck turned an obscure academic economic analysis into a bestseller merely by mentioning it on his TV show.  Beck’s motivated audience are readers so look out Oprah’s Book Club!  Beck has been designing the 1791 line of clothing, which he seeks to give profits to the charitable arm Mercury One. So the monetization may not  be simply lining the entertainment entrepreneur’s pockets but helping out communities.

An exciting, but roughly hewn detail of GBTV is the viewer involvement.  Beck wants his new show to be about activism.  GBTV is teasing viewers prior to the launch with hand-held POV confessionals about the making of a network.  While it is in the offing, Beck visions interactivity, which would allow viewers on a computer to pause on unfamiliar terms and look up prior shows to get back up to speed before continuing.  Moreover, Beck hopes to establish a platform which allows viewers to create video segments of things they catch and pass it on to the producers.  So instead of being mind numbed drones watching the boob tube, they can be active Watch Dogs contributing to the cause.

Obviously, many these pursuits are praiseworthy.  Moreover, the DCBarroco blog shares the aspiration to meld enlightenment with amusement, fostering idea sharing through interactivity and encouraging the audience to “connect the dots”. But this analysis is neither a paen nor propaganda. The question essentially is “Will it work?”

Glenn Beck’s unbridled dreams personally reminds me of the soaring refrain from  “I Sing the Body Electric” from the original version of Fame.  These themes of self confident affirmation of individuality are echoed in the 2010 Glenn Beck Program radio theme.

 While it was created by an uncredited Stephen Lyons, it reminded many listeners of Muse’s anthematic "Uprising”.  But the theme certainly was not made by Muse because when Beck expressed his admiration for this European “Libertarian” oriented group, Muse responded that: "[Beck] is a crazy right winger".  So things don’t always work out as planned, which might end up being the refrain for GBTV.

The Mercury Radio Arts mission is some pretty ambitious stuff.  It is unclear if a new network can be launched in a little over three months using a subscription streaming internet model remains to be seen.  Can quality conservative news and entertainment programming draw audience away from the mixed bag of viral videos on Youtube or streaming Netflix?  Is it an impossible dream to turn an audience into activists?  Can charitable pursuits comfortably interlock with capitalism and community activism?   Will Mercury Radio Arts rise in the horizon swiftly delivering messages of hope and homespun values.  Or will it resemble Icarus, the Greek legend who flew too close to the heavenly blaze and crash landed. It remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

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