With Glenn Beck's recent departure from CNN Headline News for Fox News Channel, there's an idea going around that his Headline News show was at least a ratings success. Beck "was arguably the networkÃƒÆ’Â¢ÃƒÂ¢”Å¡Â¬ÃƒÂ¢”Å¾Â¢s most conservative political voice and stirred up both controversy and better ratings in his time slot," wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Kristi Swartz (10/21/08). Fox News, in announcing Beck's move, boasted that his show "has grown more than 200 percent in viewership in both the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. timeslots since its 2006 debut."
The fact is, though, that aside from being a hatemonger who threatens entire religious groups with concentration camps if they fail to become vigilante killers (I'm not kidding–see FAIR Action Alert, 12/5/06), Beck is not a particularly popular TV personality. More than a year ago, Media Matters' Eric Boehlert (7/31/07) was asking "How Low (in the Ratings) Can Glenn Beck Go?"–and pointing out that his ratings were worse than Paula Zahn's, whom CNN let go for low ratings.
Beck's ratings have improved this year, it's true–but so have his competitors', due to the intense interest in the presidential race, leaving Beck consistently a distant fourth in the cable news ratings. To take a more or less random day, look at October 14, two days before the announcement that he was switching networks. (The day before the announcement was a debate day, so the numbers weren't typical.) According to TV Newser, a website that tabulates the Nielsen ratings, he got 575,000 viewers for his 7 p.m. slot–compared with 1.1 million for Lou Dobbs on CNN, 1.4 million for Chris Matthews on MSNBC and more than 2 million for Shepard Smith on Fox. In the 25-54 demographic–which is what matters from a business perspective, since those are the viewers that advertisers want to pay for–Beck did slightly better, but still got beat roughly two-to-one by his rivals.
After Beck, Headline News would show Nancy Grace, the tabloid-style crime show. On October 14–and this was not so unusual–Grace got about triple the audience that Beck got, in both total viewers and in "the demo"–and was actually competitive with the shows on at the same time on the other cable news networks. (She came in third, behind the O'Reilly Factor and Keith Olbermann's Countdown, but ahead of Campbell Brown on CNN.)
Then Headline News would re-air Beck's show–and would typically lose a lot of Grace's audience; on October 14, Headline News went from 1.5 million at 8 to 667,000 at 9. Meanwhile, the other news networks were maintaining or growing their audiences, leaving Beck with about one-quarter the total viewers of Hannity & Colmes, and roughly one-third the viewers of Larry King Live and Rachel Maddow.
Then, at 10, the rerun of Nancy Grace added 400,000 people to Headline News' audience.
That's just one night, but that seems to be the basic pattern: Beck did much worse in the ratings than the shows he was competing against, and much worse than the show both his primetime slots led into. Perhaps CNN and Headline News will take the lesson that at the very bottom of the barrel, there isn't much worth eating.
(It's certainly possible that Beck will do better on Fox, where he may inherit an audience from his lead-in that is more in tune with his rantings. That doesn't mean it was a good business decision for CNN to hire him–or to keep him on the schedule for almost three years.)