Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, the firebrands of right- and left-wing talk, are a lot richer now than they were a year ago. But they're also less relevant.
With Olbermann moving to Current TV and Beck leaving Fox for a subscription internet service, both have fallen out of the national conversation. The power of broadcast and cable has, in this case, trumped the power of their personal brands.
Olbermann “is not on my radar anymore,” said Alissa Quart, a columnist for the Columbia Journalism Review and a senior editor at The Atavist, referring to the bombastic host who commands an audience on Current TV that's less than a third the size of his MSNBC viewership.
“When you stop broadcasting or narrow it to your avid followers, they are the only people you’re speaking to. You’re out of the public consciousness,” said David Campanelli, national TV analyst for Horizon Media.
Earlier this year both politically outspoken hosts were forced out of high-profile cable news network gigs.
And each pursued lucrative new ventures on fledgling platforms based on their personal brands.
They joined other popular media personalities like Howard Stern and Conan O'Brien who have lost relevance on smaller platforms.
It was less than a year ago that Olbermann served a tentpole role for MSNBC, a network rising in the ratings. And "The Glenn Beck Show" was one of the most-watched shows on the most popular cable news channels, Fox News.
In February, Olbermann moved his "Countdown" to fledgling Current TV and assumed the role of chief news officer (reportedly netting a fat salary and shares in the company).
His highest ratings were in his first week, when he drew an average of 354,000 viewers (131,000 of which came in the key adults 25-54 demo). Since then, his ratings have fluctuated, rarely topping that 300,000 mark.
By comparison, he averaged more than 1 million viewers over his last couple of years at MSNBC.
Beck, meanwhile, launched a subscription-based, internet-only network.
He managed to lure a subscriber following of 230,000 to his GBTV channel in time for its launch, but that number is tiny compared to the more than 2 million viewers he averaged when he broke out on Fox in 2009.
When Olbermann abruptly announced he was leaving MSNBC on-air in January, it was not the first time acrimony enveloped his departure. He has infuriated bosses at every stop — both because he is notoriously difficult to work with and because his brilliance makes it difficult to end the relationship.
Yet every other time Olbermann has departed, he upped his salary and maintained a great deal of influence. When he left ESPN, he got a fat deal from Fox. When Fox fired him, he eventually settled in at MSNBC.
He may have landed on his feet again, but this time it was at the far reaches of the cable dial.
Current TV has gone through a few transformations, the most recent being a political news and analysis channel with Olbermann as the centerpiece.
Current and Olbermann both declined to comment for the story.
While Olbermann has undoubtedly given the network a new significance, it is still available in only about 60 million homes in the U.S., as compared to the more than 95 million that get MSNBC. And good luck finding what channel it is your market. (Yes, even in the DVR age, that still counts.)
“The biggest challenge facing Current is their place on the dial,” said Mediaite's Colby Hall. “They are off the beaten path, and people don’t really consider them.”
While a pair of new prime time hosts in Cenk Uygur and Jennifer Granholm will bolster Current’s pursuit of big election-year ratings, the channel faces a steep climb to build its audience.
Olbermann also doesn’t have the force of NBCUniversal’s promotional department, the publicity that comes with a larger network or other popular shows to lead into him.
“You have to think about what role the network plays in advertising and publicizing its talent,” said Suzanne Diamond, founder and president of the Diamond Group, a marketing consulting firm, and an adjunct professor at the U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “Current TV doesn’t have the synergy from sibling networks to encourage and reinforce viewership, nor as large an audience to pull in on-air advertising.”
And then there’s Beck.
He, too, left a big cable channel because he had alienated many powerful individuals. (In his case, it was advertisers and viewers who were irate at his doomsday proclamations and inflammatory rhetoric.)
Also Read: Glenn Beck Agrees to End Fox News Show
Like Olbermann, Beck now finds himself speaking to a much smaller audience, one in the hundreds of thousands instead of millions.
Like Olbermann, Beck essentially moved his same show to a new platform, only now it is two hours instead of one. To watch Beck, one must subscribe to GBTV (base price: $4.95 a month). A Forbes story from 2010 broke down his earnings, concluding that of the $32 million his Mercury Radio Arts hauled in for the year, just $2 million came from television.
Beck has a much broader array of media assets under his Mercury Radio Arts Banner, including a nationally-syndicated radio show and book publishing label. He also makes regular public appearances.
His business model, collecting money directly from subscribers and offering content across digital platforms, is also viewed by some as more innovative.
“You look at Glenn Beck going from the Fox News machine to doing it by himself. It’s amazing that he’s gotten 230,000 people to pay a subscription for it,” Diamond added. "I'm kind of intrigued by the whole model, and I'd like to see where it goes."
Still, in terms of having a central gathering place for his media empire, 230,000 loyal subscribers doesn't equate to the millions Beck served on Fox News. And the average viewer can't exactly stumble upon Beck's show or DVR it anymore — it's subscribe or else.
"He might be making more money because it's all his, but he's preaching to the choir now, he's not out there speaking to the masses," Campanelli said.
Nor are there other highly rated Fox News programs plugging his show or giving him air time. Self-promotion is now a Glenn Beck enterprise.
One of the best examples of Beck’s diminished presence is how the “liberal” media treats him. When he was on Fox, Jon Stewart would don the thick-rimmed glasses and make fun of Beck at least once a week. Now? Nary a mention.
Campanelli noted the similarity to Howard Stern's situation.
“When Howard Stern was on public radio, he’d be making news fairly frequently. People would talk about listening to his show. When he went over to Sirius, he took his hardcore, passionate viewers and listeners with him, and I’m sure they’re still there listening. But I can’t tell you last time I heard anything about Howard Stern.”