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The Fall of Glenn Beck: How an Imaginative Boycott Stripped the Right-Wing Screamer of Sponsors and What We Can Learn from Its Success

Commentators have been downplaying the role of a Color of Change campaign against Beck. They are wrong. Beck is gone. Give the boycotters their due.

[Cross-posted from the  "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.]

Thursday, June 30 was Glenn Beck’s  last day on Fox News. Needless to say, this is cause for celebration.

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.”