Almost every time I flipped on television last week, there was a deeply angry guy on a running tirade about the conspiracies afoot, the enemies around all corners, and how he alone seemed to understand what was under way.
While it?s true that Charlie Sheen sucked up a lot of airtime last week, I?d been watching Glenn Beck, the Fox News host who invoked Hezbollah, socialists, the price of gas, Shari?a law, George Soros, Planned Parenthood, and, yes, Charlie Sheen, as he predicted a coming apocalypse.
Mr. Beck, a conservative Jeremiah and talk-radio phenomenon, burst into television prominence in 2009 by taking the forsaken 5 p.m. slot on Fox News and turning it into a juggernaut. A conjurer of conspiracies who spotted sedition everywhere he looked, Mr. Beck struck a big chord and ended up on the cover of Time magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and held rallies all over the country that were mobbed with acolytes. He achieved unheard-of ratings, swamped the competition and at times seemed to threaten the dominion of Bill O?Reilly and Sean Hannity at Fox.
But a funny thing happened on the way from the revolution. Since last August, when he summoned more than 100,000 followers to the Washington mall for the ?Restoring Honor? rally, Mr. Beck has lost over a third of his audience on Fox ? a greater percentage drop than other hosts at Fox. True, he fell from the great heights of the health care debate in January 2010, but there has been worrisome erosion ? more than one million viewers ? especially in the younger demographic.
He still has numbers that just about any cable news host would envy and, with about two million viewers a night, outdraws all his competition combined. But the erosion is significant enough that Fox News officials are willing to say ? anonymously, of course; they don?t want to be identified as criticizing the talent ? that they are looking at the end of his contract in December and contemplating life without Mr. Beck.
On the other side, people who work for Mr. Beck point out that he could live without Fox News. Unlike some other cable hosts, Mr. Beck has a huge multiplatform presence: he has sold around four million books, is near the top of talk-radio ratings, has a growing Web site called The Blaze, along with a stage performance that still packs houses. Forbes estimated that his company, Mercury Radio Arts, had more than $30 million in revenue.
How could a breakup between Mr. Beck and Fox News ? a bond that seemed made in pre-Apocalyptic heaven ? come to pass? They were never great friends to start with: Mr. Beck came to Fox with a huge radio show and had been on CNN Headline News, so he did not owe his entire career to Fox and frequently went off-message. The sniping between Fox News executives and Mr. Beck?s team began soon after he went on the air in 2009.
Many on the news side of Fox have wondered whether his chronic outrageousness ? he suggested that the president has ?a deep-seated hatred for white people? ? have made it difficult for Fox to hang onto its credibility as a news network. Some 300 advertisers fled the show, leaving sponsorship to a slew of gold bullion marketers whose message dovetails nicely with Mr. Beck?s end-of-times gospel. Both parties go to some lengths to point out that that the discussion have nothing to do with persistent criticism from the left.
But the partnership, which has been good for both parties, may yet be repaired. On Wednesday?s show, Mr. Beck went to some lengths to demonstrate gratitude and fealty to Fox News.
?Two years ago, I was on a cable channel that no one was watching at the time, doing a show that no one was watching, and I was about to leave television. And then I had the opportunity to come and work here,? he said. ?If you?re going to do news or commentary, the only place, I think in the world, the only place that really makes an impact is Fox.?
William Kristol of The Weekly Standard suggested that Mr. Beck is ?marginalizing himself? by arguing that socialists and leftists were working with Islamic radicals to sow worldwide chaos. But Mr. Beck has always marched to his own idiosyncratic music, and his ratings actually began dropping long before Egypt rose up against its leader.
The problem with ?Glenn Beck? is that it has turned into a serial doomsday machine that?s a bummer to watch.
Mr. Beck, a more gifted entertainer than most cable hosts, can still bring it, lighting up with characters and voices. But much of the time, there is sense that the fatigue from always being on alert, tilting forward in the saddle against the next menace, is starting to wear him down.
What had been a fast and loose assault on all things liberal has grown darker and less entertaining, especially with the growing revolution in the Middle East, a phenomenon Mr. Beck sees as something of a beginning to some kind of end. He?s often alone in the studio with his chalkboards and obscure factoids, a setting that reminds me of an undergrad seminar on macroeconomics with an around-the-bend professor I didn?t particularly enjoy.
Last Wednesday, as he grabbed all the disparate strands from around the globe and tied them into a great, grand bow of doom, he ambled alone about between various blackboards, each jammed with portentous bullet points. He often looked away from the camera into a middle distance as he spoke of a calamity that only he can see.
?He used to be a lot funnier,? said David Von Drehle, who wrote the article in Time magazine. ?He was the befuddled everyman and something entirely new, but the longer people have listened to his ranting and raving, the wearier they become. Now you are just getting down to diehards. I mean, how many people were in the Waco compound at the end? A couple of hundred??
Joel Cheatwood, a senior vice president of development for Fox News and the executive in charge of the show, thinks it?s silly to suggest that the American viewing public?s romance with Mr. Beck is on the wane ? he?s trouncing his competition ? but says that keeping the show upbeat is something he discusses with Mr. Beck.
?We have talked about that, at his instigation,? Mr. Cheatwood said. ?It is really important that no matter how dire he thinks things are or what horrible direction things may be going from his perspective that the show maintains a sense of hope.?
?What you see on television with Glenn is the real guy,? he added, ?and that is a double-edged sword. If he is upset about something, you see it.?
Part of Mr. Beck?s appeal is that he seems as if he is about to lose his marbles. But recently, he acts like he?s a little tired of the game. He can still draw a huge crowd, but he looks lonely in that studio all by himself.
?When I first came here,? he told his audience on Wednesday, ?I had this pie-in-the-sky belief that if I told you the truth, if I verified all of my facts and double-checked, and we could make that compelling case with facts to back it up, the journalists in other places would get curious and they?d use their resources and they?d investigate and they?d prove it right and they?d show it too.? Then he shook his head and laughed bitterly.
Mr. Beck remains firm in his belief that something is going terribly wrong and it may be time to stock up on canned goods and head to the basement. The problem with predicting doomsday is that if you?re wrong, you have to figure out what to say the next day. And if you?re right ... well, the ratings will be terrific, for what that?s worth.