The former Fox News host generates tens of millions with his indefensible style -- and staffers who unexpectedly achieve a higher standard.
The Glenn Beck Program began Monday with its host driving a red golf cart while singing, as if to himself, "The hills are alive with the sound of music." As he stepped from the vehicle he removed a pipe from his mouth and stood before us in high definition, clad in a dark blazer with a 1789 crest on the left breast, a shirt and tie, tan slacks, and black athletic shoes with white toes. "These are the institutions you trust," he said, turning to a black chalk board with a list written on. Derived from a Gallup poll, it cataloged America's most trusted institutions, with the military at the top and the rest in descending order: small businesses, religious organizations, and doctors all rank highly. Less trusted are the media, banks, big business, big labor, and politicians.
"It's interesting when you look at this," Beck said, launching into his signature rhetorical maneuver, the inevitable half-baked conspiracy theory that ties everything on the chalkboard together. "It's almost like Congress, colluding with insurance companies, big business, organized labor, the banks and TV news, are all trying to consume the military, small business, police, church and religion," he posited. To bolster his thesis -- that the least trusted institutions in America are trying to destroy the most trusted -- he mentioned the Cartegena prostitution scandal that implicated members of the military and the Secret Service. "When have we ever questioned the Secret Service before?" he said. "Here these guys are trained, tested, and all of this is happening?"
This is the sort of programming I expected when I signed up for GBTV, the $9.95 per month subscriber-only network that Glenn Beck launched last September after parting ways with the Fox News Channel. While working for Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, Beck was watched by roughly 2.2 million viewers each weekday evening, and earned an eye-popping $2.5 million salary. In contrast, his new venture has about 300,000 subscribers, plus a small stable of advertisers. And according to numbers first reported in the Wall Street Journal and generally regarded as accurate, the network expects 2012 revenues to top $40 million, even as Al Gore's CurrentTV is struggling and Oprah Winfrey's new cable network recently laid off 30 full time employees.
Elsewhere in the sprawling Glenn Beck media empire, his news Web site, The Blaze, is experiencing success. Forbes now looks prescient for predicting last summer that the Web could make Beck richer than television ever did. And The Hollywood Reporter named Beck "one of the 50 most powerful people in digital," along with Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and the CEO of Twitter.
Of course, monetary success is but one way to judge GBTV.
What ought to matter much more is the quality of the content it produces, its influence on American politics, and what it says about the corner of movement conservatism that it occupies. Measured on those metrics, the network turns out to be a lot more interesting than you'd expect. Beck's show is as indefensible as always: error-filled, conspiratorial, lacking in rigor. One recent episode on coal resembled nothing so much as a paid infomercial for the industry. In another Beck wondered how anyone could possibly deny that Barack Obama is a radical Communist.
But other programs at GBTV are more rigorous, thanks to staffers whose output displays more integrity than their boss's. It's often on par with various programs at CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. Of course, GBTV isn't burdened by a news gathering operation. The bulk of its programming would still pass editorial muster on regular cable. Its production value is sometimes better.
What I care about most is content.
The most fascinating contrast on GBTV is the one between the Glenn Beck Program, presumably the show with the oldest audience, and Liberty Tree House, which is geared toward kids. Why wouldn't I want my grandparents to watch Beck's hour long broadcast? Because its paranoid portrayal of the world can only induce needless anxiety. Everything is a conspiracy. Individuals are powerless in the face of corrupt elites lying about their intentions. The only rational response, if you take Beck seriously, is a fatalistic pessimism of the sort that explains why Survival Seed Vault is an advertiser. GBTV doubtless prompts elderly viewers to darkly tell their skeptical grandkids, "Fine, don't listen to me. What do I know? Besides, I'll be gone anyway. And I'm glad I won't be around to see it, because you kids don't know what's coming."
On Liberty Tree House, the vibe couldn't be more different. Its enthusiastic host, Raj Nair, manages to exude a family-friendly cool of the sort that made Uncle Jesse on Full House and older brother Matt on 7th Heaven so likeable to elementary school kids. He pulls it off with enough quirks and self-awareness to be broadly appealing, too. Unlike his ultimate boss, Nair doesn't abuse the credulity of his most impressionable Web TV viewers. A typical show blends well-researched, biographical sketches of famous and obscure figures from American history with empowering features on pre-teens or young teenagers who've invented something or started their own business or made a positive difference in their community. Did you know that Johnny Appleseed was a vegetarian? Or that Benjamin Rush was "maybe the most admirable of all the Founding Fathers" because he advocated against slavery and was "truly Christlike" in his deeds? Or that a kid in North Carolina saved enough money to co-invest in a house?
As portrayed on Liberty Tree House, America is a country full of possibility where personal integrity matters more than making a profit, hard work usually pays off, and individuals are masters of their own fate -- able to change their lives for the better so long as they believe it to be possible and do what it takes. As much as I'd hate for my grandparents to watch the Glenn Beck Show, I wouldn't mind if my (as yet hypothetical) children watched Liberty Tree House. It draws on the best aspects of non-denominational Christian traditionalism and American history. It's no more heavy-handed than a children's show on PBS. And the takeaway is mostly, "Be inspired!"
Watching the Glenn Beck Show alongside Liberty Tree House, it's impossible to miss the contradiction between the attitudes exhibited by the entertainers movement conservatives patronize and the contrasting values that they hope to instill in their own kids. Why doesn't the children's programming on GBTV track Beck's show, teaching the kids that conservatives in America are unfairly put-upon victims of a malign liberal media? Or that they're ruled over by elites constantly engaged in far-reaching, shadowy conspiracies? Why doesn't it teach that in partisan politics, the end justifies the means, or that people who disagree with your ideological beliefs are to be mercilessly mocked, strategically misrepresented, and treated as if their motives are evil?
Deep down, Beck and his audience know these things are wrong. GBTV parents would also be creeped out if Raj Nair suddenly started cultivating a Glenn Beck-like demeanor. When Liberty Tree House wants informal jocularity, Nair says something like, "You might be thinking, what's so special about Benjamin Franklin. I mean, he looks like the guy from the Quaker Oats box or someone's hippie grandpa. But looks can be deceiving." For the same effect, Beck jokes about Obama eating dog, darkly muses, "I'm not 100 percent sure, but I am pretty sure that we don't all have to eat dogs," then turns to the caged birds inexplicably beside him on the set and says, "but maybe canaries, yeah?" It's as if David Lynch wrote a short about a creepy cable TV host.