What Ever Happened to Glenn Beck?

Remember Glenn Beck? For a while there he was the most talked-about media figure in the country, his mug shouting from magazine covers as he channeled the particular brand of crazy that had seized the Republican party. His unhinged conspiracy theories and venomous hatred for Barack Obama were perfectly in tune with what a significant portion of the country was feeling; his books shot up the best-seller list, his Fox News show got great ratings, and everyone was talking about him.

And now? Not so much. When his TV show was cancelled (because of falling ratings, advertiser unease, and the remarkable fact that even at Fox people thought he was kind of nuts), Beck wasn't defeated -- he'd just grow his media empire all by his lonesome. The centerpiece of that empire was to be GBTV, a subscription-based Internet television service. How's it going? As Bloomberg Businessweek reports, it's complicated:

Restoring Courage [the rally and related events Beck held in Israel] illustrates the challenges Beck faces after Fox. Unlike last year's Washington rally, his mission to Israel isn't treated as a major news event by the national media. "I don't believe Fox was there," Beck complains on his radio show. He reassures his listeners, and perhaps himself, though, that "everybody else under the sun was there." However, the Wall Street Journal, News Corp.'s flagship American newspaper, ignored Restoring Courage, too. This can only be troubling for Beck. The Wall Street types who might invest in future GBTV shows probably don't listen to Beck's radio show. But it's fairly certain that they read the Wall Street Journal and watch Fox News.

What this illustrates is the continuing power of TV, not so much as a medium of persuasion but as a medium of status conferral. I have no doubt that a lot of Beck's fans will sign up to pay to have access to his website (as the article says, "Beck frequently reminded his fans that if they couldn’t make it to the Holy Land, they could watch the "planet-course-altering" rally by subscribing to GBTV, his new Internet channel, for $4.95 a month, or a premium $9.95 monthly rate"). And they'll keep buying his books and listening to his radio show. He'll continue to make millions of dollars a year. But without a cable television show, Important People won't pay attention to him.

That's because even if they aren't actually watching it, being on television signals to those people that you're a member of the most elite club, and you can't be ignored. That's true despite the fact that cable audiences are tiny -- Beck himself always reached many more people on the radio than he did on television, even when his TV show was at its apex. But now, no matter how many fans he retains, he isn't on TV so he might as well not exist.