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In a Flyover State: The New Era of Betting On Yourself

I don’t care what you say about Glenn Beck’s politics or outlook on life or our country, but one thing is pretty hard to argue with: He is a dynamic broadcaster. It’s pretty hard to find anyone who has ever seen or heard one of his shows, or has seen coverage of him, that just shrugs and doesn’t have much of an opinion about the soon-to-be ex-Fox News star.

Therein lies the power of Glenn Beck. He is more than polarizing. He definitely elicits a rabid response one way or the other—most people either love or loathe him. And while his ratings have been dropping amidst a sense that his shtick had run its course on Fox News Channel, he still has a massive following to be sure.

So when Beck and Roger Ailes signed their divorce papers recently, it signaled the latest instance of a personality who seemingly believes he is bigger than the media outlet on which he made much of his impact. And given the long tail, and viewership fragmentation becoming more prevalent every day as technology reinvents the way we digest media, some of these media celebrities may just be right: Personal brands are becoming as bankable as networks.

Beck is hardly the first person of this ilk to test new waters, regardless of where he ends up.

We have seen Howard Stern leave terrestrial radio for satellite radio and apparently take millions of listeners with him. While it is argued by some that he weakened his position in the Zeitgeist when he made the move, checking out his Alist guests and the numbers he draws when he makes television talk show appearances, from David Letterman to Piers Morgan, counters that thinking.

Obviously, Keith Olbermann took a page out of the same playbook when he inevitably wore out his welcome—as he tends to—this time at MSNBC. With Olbermann’s decision to go to minnow Current TV, he, Joel Hyatt and Al Gore are banking on the fact that a personality is the show, not the network.

You could also argue that Conan O’Brien fits into this mold. Fired from The Tonight Show as we know it traditionally, he took his ball and went home rather than staying at NBC, betting on his personal brand by fleeing to an unknown space—late night on TBS.

And now it will be Beck’s turn. In the coming days, weeks or months (if not by the time this column runs), he will announce his next television stop. While B&C reported last week that syndication does not seem to be an option, as his hard-core views don’t play well in that space, according to executives who would hire him, he will surely set up shop and bring his legion to a new cable television home. Or Netflix. I guess you need to say that now.

So it seems with these four big names—all linked by big egos, big and polarizing talent, and bigger followings— we have firmly stepped into a new era.

There are still plenty of franchises that endure big changes, the typical example being NBC’s longrunning Todayshow, which most recently didn’t miss a beat when Meredith Vieira replaced Katie Couric, and probably won’t if and when its current big names move on. Go ahead and add American Idol, which is rewriting conventional wisdom by improbably still slaying the Nielsens even in its tenth year and having lost its biggest star before this season. However, these are long-running shows that are built as much around a successful format as they are around their hosts or judges.

But today we are seeing a new trend in which highlypaid, popular and often tough-to-manage talent are willing to shun the safe harbor of the networks that helped make them and, instead, bet on themselves as they try to ply their trade in places that, as PR-types would say, have upside (translation: no one watches or listens).

Fox News will replace Glenn Beck and not miss a step (for the record, my vote is for Fox News’ own Megyn Kelly to step in) because Roger Ailes simply makes TV stars better than anyone else in this game right now.

As for Beck, he will test the waters that seem to be getting more and more inviting—when big, brash people make big, brash bets that they are bigger (and brasher) than a network. Turns out Glenn Beck doesn’t need to diagram the long tail on a chalkboard. His own career is now doing it for all of us.