Why Fox News let Glenn Beck go

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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With a possible government shutdown, a proposed budget, and Libya still in the news, word that Glenn Beck would be leaving his popular daily Fox News show still managed to prove a huge story this week.

It also raised speculation about why Beck and Fox News would part ways. After all, his show enjoys very good ratings, and it hasn’t been on all that long. (It first aired the day before Obama’s inauguration. Just as Bill Clinton outlasted House speaker Newt Gingrich, it is interesting that Obama will also outlast his nemesis Glenn Beck.)

So why would Fox News make this decision?

My take is that while Beck’s show was individually a ratings hit, he also risked tarnishing the overall Fox News “brand.” Despite the fact that some advertisers were boycotting Beck, from Fox News’ perspective, this was clearly a brand management decision — not an individual dollars-and-cents business decision.

We’ve seen this sort of thing before in the entertainment world. In the early 1970s, for example, CBS made a similar branding move when they decided to cancel hit rural-themed TV shows such as “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” The “rural purge,” as it was called, was notable because the shows that were cancelled were successful in terms of their ratings, but they were perceived as being unsophisticated. CBS, it seems, was more worried about their image than about ratings.

Smart businesses sometimes take short-term profit losses in order to move in a direction that could help provide long-term sustainability of the organization (similarly, NFL teams sometimes let superstars who are past their prime depart, even though it has an adverse impact on their ability to win today). On this view, Glenn Beck was to Fox News what Jed Clampett was to CBS: a short-term moneymaker, but also one whose brand was growing increasingly out-of-step with the image the network wanted to project going forward.

Fox News, of course, makes no apologies for airing evening opinion hosts who have a point of view — nor should they. But Beck’s show came close to crossing the line between legitimate conservative political opinion and the fringe. I also have a sense that the times have changed a bit. Is it a coincidence that liberal host Keith Olbermann (one of MSNBC’s most successful) and Beck are both departing their shows so close to one another?

So what does this mean for conservatives? There is a theory that movements need people out there on the edges: they make the rest of us look moderate by comparison. That is sometimes true, but while I believe Beck, during his short tenure, was a net plus for conservatives, I also think there was potential for him to go too far and become a net negative. In which case, it is probably fortuitous that this is happening now.

For decades, conservatives fought off the perception that their views were anything less than mainstream and legitimate. And for decades prior to the rise of talk radio, cable news and the new media, conservatives were stuck with narratives driven by three TV networks and a couple of newspapers in New York and Washington, D.C. Fox News, along with Rush Limbaugh and the conservative talkers and bloggers, finally changed that — and it would be a shame to allow anything, or anyone, to undermine the credibility of what was achieved at great cost.

Of course, it would be a mistake for media analysts to interpret this as Fox News moving to the left politically. Instead, it would be better to interpret this as Fox News distancing itself from an albeit popular brand of populism — to a more mainstream, center-right position. This has less to do with ideology than it does with style. Ronald Reagan was no less conservative than Barry Goldwater, yet Reagan won over “Reagan Democrats,” while Goldwater’s blunt style turned off many Americans. Similarly, one could argue that Glenn Beck is no more conservative than Sean Hannity, yet Hannity’s image is obviously closer to being the kind of image Fox News wants to project.

As for Beck, it is hard to tell what will happen next. He is incredibly popular and talented; his radio show is, in my opinion, much more fun than his TV show, so if nothing else, he can continue to have success there. He has also launched a website, the Blaze. Beck can still have a powerful impact on the national discussion, but it won’t be happening at Fox News.

(This article originally appeared in The Guardian.)

Matt Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller.