Boycott Power and the Fall of Glenn Beck
Thursday, June 30 was Glenn Beck's last day on Fox News. Needless to say, this is cause for celebration. [Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.] One can find a variety of explanations for his departure. Observers invariably note Beck's declining ratings. (According to the New Republic, his viewership fell "from an average of 2.9 million in January 2010 to 1.8 million in January 2011.") Some also cite political reasons for him and Fox splitting ways. Hendrik Hertzberg speculated at the New Yorker that Beck was bad for morale at the network because he became an embarrassment for those on staff who consider themselves "news professionals." More recently, Leslie Savan argued at the Nation that Beck was expendable because "he's served his purpose for Fox and its subsidiary, the Republican Party." Once the backlash against Obama was well underway and more respectable faces of extreme conservatism were in power--folks like Paul Ryan and Scott Walker--Beck was no longer needed. These things may have been part of the story. But, if we're handing out credit, I think we need to take time to recognize the innovative and relentless boycott that set out to strip Glenn Beck of his sponsors. The boycott was amazingly effective at doing just that--ultimately convincing several hundred corporations (including major names such as Wal-Mart, GEICO, and Procter & Gamble) to agree not to advertise on his show. The online advocacy group ColorOfChange.org first launched the boycott in August 2009, after Beck stated that President Obama was a racist with a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." Following this, the activists did a great job of documenting the crazy and offensive things that Beck would say, and then presenting advertisers with the evidence. They got 285,000 people to sign a petition to Beck's sponsors, and they used online tools to transmit people's concerns to the targeted corporations. Advertisers, generally averse to controversy, left in droves. Fox News long denied that it was losing money. Its spokespeople said to the New York Times in August 2009, "The advertisers referenced have all moved their spots from Beck to other day parts on the network, so there has been no revenue lost." However, the network's logic does not hold up. James Rucker, Executive Director of ColorOfChange.org, argued:
Fox News Channel has a limited amount of ad positions. If 62 companies [the number boycotting at the time of the statement] refuse to run ads on two of their 24 hours of programming, they are losing inventory. No matter how high Beck's ratings have been lately, advertisers still see Beck as toxic and don't want him associated with their brands. There is no way that Fox News Channel is making the money they should be making with Glenn Beck.ColorOfChange.org crunched some numbers and estimated that the boycott was costing Fox News more than $500,000 per week. Eric Boehlert at Media Matters offered this analysis:
The television industry is built around supply and demand. Glenn Beck has supply in the form of roughly 20 minutes of advertising time sold each episode. And it wants to build demand. Usually, healthy ratings drive that demand since advertisers want to reach the masses. But if suddenly hundreds of advertisers raise their hand and announce they'd be happy to spend money with Fox News, but not on Glenn Beck, then the show's demand plummets, but the supply--the 20 minutes of advertising inventory--remains the same. Bottom line? The ad rates go down....As Brad Adgate, director of research for the ad-buying giant Horizon Media, noted in an email to me yesterday: "Ad rates are predicated on supply and demand, not ratings. If the show has low demand and an oversupply of advertiser inventory, the show will not get premium ad pricing no matter how many viewers."The New York Times concluded early on that the campaign had been "unusually successful." There are some lessons here about what makes a good boycott. The ColorOfChange.org drive wasn't about getting the average American not to watch the show. It was different from the endless array of lefty boycotts that tell people not to shop at this store or buy that product, campaigns that--beyond those commandments--have no real plan for winning their demands or even for quantifying the impact they've made. The Beck boycott was far more strategic. Its organizers identified wary advertisers as their point of leverage, targeted specific corporations that were buying ads, and used the announcement of each new company that agreed to withdraw as a way to build momentum. By March 2011 the New York Daily News reported that "the number of advertisers currently boycotting Beck's program is now closing in at 400." In spite of its successes, I haven't seen a ton of attention given to the boycott. I think the conventional wisdom among political commentators would hold that the efforts of those like ColorOfChange.org didn't make too much difference--or at least that they were not decisive. As Savan wrote, "Of course, Beck has been shedding advertisers and viewers for more than a year as his paranoid vigilante shtick wore thin, but that isn't the reason he's been axed: Rupert Murdoch subsidizes many projects that don't turn a profit, the New York Post for one." This misses the point: True, Murdoch might choose to subsidize some money-losers. But not all of them. Certainly, television executives are far more likely to cut their ties with a personality that is costing them money than one who is immensely profitable. A cash cow who is no longer an ideal political spokesperson is still a cash cow. In contrast, if you're both an out-of-favor political commentator and you're losing money...well, that's when you've "served your purpose." In other words, the boycott forced the issue. It made executives question whether keeping Beck around was worth it. It made Murdoch choose. And he chose to let Beck go. It's not my intention to single out Savan, who downplayed the boycott only in passing and no doubt was broadly supportive of it, unlike some others. My sense is that a wide range of political commentators would prefer to believe that Beck's downfall was a natural, predictable, almost mundane occurrence. Of course, I didn't hear many people saying that last summer, when Beck--as insurgent reactionary and populist parade marshal--seemed like he was on top of the world. It's worth recalling, too, that when ColorOfChange.org first announced its campaign, the Christian Science Monitor ran a piece entitled, "Why the boycott against Glenn Beck will almost certainly backfire." It has been often noted that, once progressive wins are obtained, they are dismissed as inevitable and over-determined. But those who belittle activist gains in this way are merely extending the common cynicism that discourages people from taking action in the first place. You won't accomplish anything, they say. You are wasting your time, they say. And then, if you do accomplish something, they say that it would have happened anyway. They are wrong. Beck is gone. Give the boycotters their due.