CNN's rodeo clown

So you can feast on your stories but it won't stop the bleeding
When the truth is found the houses surely fall down
There's blood on their mouths of all lies and liars
The bloody red eyes of the rodeo clown

So you can feast on your stories but it won't stop the bleeding
When the truth is found the houses surely fall down
There's blood on their mouths of all lies and liars
The bloody red eyes of the rodeo clown

--John Mellencamp, “Rodeo Clown”

The bad news last week was that Glenn Beck, the right-wing radio talker and self-described “rodeo clown” who broadcasts nightly on CNN Headline News, hosted a world-is-flat special about the "myths" surrounding global warming. In it, Beck rounded up the usual ban of discredited, oil industry-friendly "experts" who announced that the looming atmospheric crisis is overblown, and that far from being a consensus, serious scientists still disagree on the matter.

The good news was that Beck's special, “Exposed: Climate of Fear,” was a commercial flop, finishing dead last in total viewers among CNN, Headline News, Fox News, and MSNBC programs that night. The weak showing simply highlighted Beck's recent, albeit little-discussed, ratings woes. Just months after being hyped as the fastest-growing prime-time program in cable news, Glenn Beck has become arguably the most stagnant prime-time program in cable news.

For CNN, the repercussions of the backslide are immense and go far beyond the advertising dollars and cents involved.

That's because whereas CNN last year traded away its good name in exchange for debuting Beck's factually challenged and hateful brand of broadcasting, at least CNN execs were getting a ratings boost out of the Faustian bargain. Today, Beck's still making a mockery out of CNN's reputation on a daily basis, as he disparages liberals, gays, Democrats, blacks, immigrants, and Muslims at will. But in return, CNN's now stuck with a Beck program that's trapped in neutral and shows signs of sliding into reverse.

Well played, CNN.

“I'm a rodeo clown who happens to have a radio and TV show,” Beck recently announced. Beck uses the rodeo clown shtick relentlessly (it's listed under “occupation” on his MySpace page), as he works overtime to assure viewers he's an undereducated, unsung hero with no journalism background. He's just an Average Joe who, by the way, produces 60-minute, prime-time news specials for CNN.

In truth, rodeo clowns are distracters. They bring attention to themselves by causing loud, outlandish scenes so that dismounted bull riders can reach safety. So in that regard, yes, Beck is a rodeo clown; a professional distracter.

For instance, just prior to the “Climate of Fear” telecast, Beck not only compared Al Gore to Adolf Hitler (an attack the Anti-Defamation League labeled “outrageous, insensitive and deeply offensive” ), but he also warned that global warming activists want the United Nations to run the world and to implement a “global carbon tax.” (Even though “Climate of Fear” aired nearly 10 weeks later than originally scheduled, it still had a rushed, amateurish feel to it. It doesn't appear as though CNN sent out any review copies in advance.)

Adding insult to injury for the CNN news family was the fact that Beck's special directly insulted the news channel's integrity. How? Beck did it when hyping “Climate of Fear” by stressing that Americans weren't getting the “other side” of the global warming story, in part because of the “mainstream media hype” surrounding the issue. Beck clearly suggested that journalists at CNN, among other places, were doing such a dreadful (read: biased) job reporting about global warming, that Beck had to step in and provide the “other side” of the debate (read: the truth).

It was Beck simply echoing the right-wing canard that the liberal media deliberately keep the truth from the masses. CNN not only approved of Beck's message, the news channel actively promoted it. (If CNN wanted to get into the business of producing “other side” specials, it should have aired one in February 2003, looking at the “other side” of the pro-war push. That would have saved CNN much future embarrassment regarding Iraq.)

“Climate of Fear” certainly wasn't journalism, not even the pseudo-brand often practiced on cable television. It was more like anti-journalism. Instead of trying to enlighten and educate consumers about the day's events, it was a deliberate attempt to mislead viewers under the guise of being informational and under the auspice of television news. It was foolery, plain and simple. Specifically, it was an attempt to re-assure partisans about global warming, to import pleasing facts into their hermetically sealed worldview of what's right and wrong. All done by Beck, a former top-40 DJ and proud non-journalist.

It truly has become amateur hour at CNN.

James Zogby got it right late last year. After watching Beck's nearly year-long McCarthy-like crusade against Arabs and Muslims, the president of the Arab American Institute wrote, “While [the CNN] network may have hoped that Beck's flamboyant style would increase ratings, the cost to their integrity has been staggering.”

I realize lots of executives, producers and reporters at CNN likely cringe at the mention of Beck's name and claim it's unfair to connect CNN with Beck; that the Headline News personality has nothing to do with the larger global news network. I don't buy it. The fact remains that Beck is invited onto CNN shows, including most recently Paula Zahn Now and Anderson Cooper 360. Also, CNN programs pitched in to hype Beck's recent global warming hoax special.

CNN cannot be a little bit pregnant here. It pays Beck a salary. He's a centerpiece for Headline News' prime-time schedule, and CNN helps promote his program. The painful part now for CNN is that Beck's show is no longer attracting new viewers, which makes the news organization's decision to give him a national platform all the more embarrassing.

Indeed, the dirty little media secret is that Beck's show has hit a ratings brick wall. Despite the glowing press from The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, which showered Beck with profiles because his show was being touted as the fastest-growing program on prime-time cable news, Beck in recent months has been flat-lining. In fact, he's actually losing viewers.

The Nielsen rating numbers from April were particularly telling and highlighted how Beck's show appears to have completely maxed out less than 12 months after its debut. April was a news-heavy month, which produced a huge spike in cable news viewership following the campus massacre at Virginia Tech. Except, that is, for Glenn Beck. (On the night of the VT shooting, Glenn Beck finished last among prime-time cable news programs, excluding those on CNBC.)

Overall, for the month of April, ratings for CNN Headline News' prime-time lineup, which is anchored by Beck, were up a microscopic 4 percent, compared to healthy, double-digit gains posted by CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

A hot show? Please, Glenn Beck has become as cool as the other side of the pillow. For the month of April, Glenn Beck's original airing in the 7 p.m. time slot averaged 304,000 viewers, down from last September, when the program drew 321,000 viewers each night. In viewers aged 25-54, the key demographic group sought by advertisers, Glenn Beck averaged 122,000 last month. Again, that's down from September, when the program drew 149,000. So much for the being “the fastest-growing show on cable news,” which was how Beck himself described the program earlier this year.

Last September was also when Glenn Beck surpassed MSNBC's Hardball in viewers 25-54, outpacing Chris Matthews' show by 17,000 viewers. No more. In April, Hardball beat Glenn Beck by 40,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic each night. And often the tally these days is far larger. For instance, on Tuesday, May 1, Hardball bested Glenn Beck by nearly 200,000 total viewers. And with the presidential election season heating up, it's unlikely that trend toward the Beltway-centric Hardball and away from Glenn Beck is going to change in the coming weeks and months.

As for the 9 p.m. time slot, in which Glenn Beck is replayed each weeknight, the show has done very little to boost Headline News' ratings. Back in June 2005, the channel, by simply looping its recap of daily headlines, was averaging 321,000 viewers each night. In April, despite all the hype about Beck's supposed ratings surge, that 9 p.m. number at Headline News had barely budged, to 328,000 viewers.

More proof of Beck's woes? Last November, Beck did hit a ratings home run with his first-ever, hour-long special, “Exposed: The Extremist Agenda.” (The show pounded the evident notion that there are Muslim extremists in the Middle East who hate America.) For the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. time slots combined, Beck's special attracted nearly two million viewers. CNN rewarded Beck by giving him four more specials this year.

“Glenn's unique style works well for his everyday show format, but giving him a full hour on just one topic really gives him the chance to delve deeper, in a way that clearly resonates with his viewers,” cooed Ken Jautz, executive vice president of CNN Worldwide. “We look forward to hearing what Glenn has to say on these timely and provocative issues.”

Last Wednesday's “Climate of Fear” marked the first of that new batch of Beck programs, and ratings were down a whopping 70 percent from Beck's November special. In fact, Beck's widely promoted “Climate of Fear” finished in last place at both 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., losing to the regularly scheduled cable news offerings on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.

Given that weak showing, I'm not surprised that suddenly CNN is much less talkative about Beck's ratings. Whereas last winter the channel was issuing press releases touting Beck's healthy gains, CNN last week declined my request for any ratings information regarding Beck's recent performance.

If Beck doesn't right his ratings ship soon, CNN's going to have to hire another rodeo clown just to distract people from fact that the news channel traded in its reputation for a last-place show.