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09.27.11

The Next Oprah?

Former Fox News firebrand Glenn Beck is busy building a Winfrey-esque empire. He tells McKay Coppins exclusively how his new GBTV online network will rival Fox—and why all politicians are liars.

It’s minutes to airtime, and the set of Glenn Beck’s new online television network, GBTV, is a hive of harried producers and technicians. Directors shout into headsets, cameramen fiddle with equipment, and a young-looking stagehand carefully scrawls the words “MARXIST REVOLUTIONARIES HAVE UNITED GLOBALLY” on a custom-designed, three-sided chalkboard. When the “live” sign blinks on, Beck begins wandering around the glitzy set as he delivers a diatribe that is, by turns, funny and indignant. Perhaps the most telling moment arrives early in the broadcast, when he goes off script to declare this new venture “bigger than Oprah,” stretching out his arms in grand fashion and drawing loud cheers from the studio audience.

Spend a little time with Beck these days, and it becomes clear that’s more than just an applause line.

Since the firebrand host left Fox News last June amid rumors of friction with network brass, he has kept himself busy with Winfrey-esque empire-building. His company now boasts a diverse menu of Beck-branded products that includes a clothing line, a Groupon imitator, and an active publishing arm that recently released a bestselling sci-fi thriller. The projects might seem like odd choices for a man aiming to, say, unseat Rush Limbaugh as the right’s top political bloviator. But if the ambitious launch of GBTV is any indication, Beck has his eye on a different perch: lifestyle guru for heartland conservatives.

Draping his long limbs across the furniture in his midtown Manhattan office on a recent afternoon, Beck welcomed comparisons to the queen of daytime talk. “Oprah is wildly successful, and she’s a brilliant businesswoman,” Beck gushed. “She’s also somebody who’s overcome a ton of demons in her own life, and that’s really what shaped her. I think the same could be said for me.” It was the day after Beck’s revamped talk show made its online premiere, and he spoke excitedly about his plans to upend the media industry. His hired guns have insisted they come to the media landscape in peace, diplomatically rejecting any notion of a war with Fox News, but Beck was more candid when asked about the potential rivalry. “What you see in the next 12 months on GBTV will transform the way news and information … is consumed,” he declared, adding that his network’s programming will be “much more one-on-one” and “interactive” than anything on Fox.

The venture is still in its early stages, but industry analysts are already noting that News Corp. may have cause for concern. According to a company source, GBTV launched with at least 230,000 subscribers, most of them paying $9.95 per month for access to the site via computer or Roku. That’s a sliver of Beck’s peak Fox News audience of 2.6 million, but it easily trumps the ratings for Winfrey’s OWN network (156,000 on average in June) and Keith Olbermann’s show on Current TV (114,000 in early September). What’s more, the venerable research firm BTIG envisions Beck’s subscribers eventually numbering close to 1 million—an audience that would bring in more than $100 million in annual subscription revenues to the network and put Fox’s advertisers on notice that there’s another show in town. (The Five, Fox’s attempt to fill Beck’s vacated slot, is averaging about 400,000 viewers in the all-important 25-54 demographic.)

All that said, Beck is quick to point out that he isn’t launching a “news network.” The lineup includes an educational children’s program, Liberty Treehouse; reruns of old TV series featuring Jack Benny and Lucille Ball, among others; and standup comedy by Brian Sack, whose mandate is “to put Jon Stewart out of business.” The network has also recruited conservative columnist S. E. Cupp as a host, poached CNN’s Amy Holmes to act as news anchor, and, according to programming director Joel Cheatwood, plans to start developing scripted dramas and sitcoms in the near future.

As for Beck’s own show, he says he is trying to keep things more upbeat, toning down the apocalyptic prognostications that were once his bread and butter. Has the shift been difficult? “Generally speaking, only when I’m dealing with Washington,” he says. “That’s why I don’t fancy myself a political commentator. I hate politics. I hate it.” When pressed to identify his favorite 2012 candidates, Beck shows some lukewarm love for Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both Tea Party heroes, but says he’s found the recent GOP primary debates frustrating, and he flatly refers to politicians as “professional liars.”

This growing disdain for the political process corresponds nicely with his recent efforts to broaden his brand. And since he has eschewed the right-wing rants that made him famous, Beck’s own politics have become increasingly difficult to peg. He tells The Daily Beast he’s not really a conservative or a libertarian, and offers a surprisingly sharp critique of small-government crusaders. “I don’t think the conservatives in America are thinking this through quite enough,” he says. “Let’s say you get your big cuts … When somebody you personally know loses their job and is in pain and suffering, and then comes to your door and says, ‘You wanted these cuts! My family can’t eat!’ what are you prepared to do? Sit there and argue with him some more about how great it is that we’ve cut it and that’s the way to save the country?”

Rather than rant and rave about the need for deficit reduction, which he favors, Beck now spends more airtime urging his followers to show charity when government services are eventually slashed. Incidentally, he says this is the real reason for controversially pushing his audience to stockpile canned goods and gold: “not to hoard food” but to dispense it to their unemployed neighbors when disaster strikes.

This is the new Glenn Beck, a post-conservative populist who centers his sermons on morality instead of politics. He preaches his message with characteristic urgency, casting himself as a duty-bound martyr. “The last thing I want to do is stand in Israel, where there are suicide vests still out there, and say the things I said,” he intones, recalling his recent trip to Jerusalem, where he mingled pro-Israel rhetoric with similar calls for do-gooding. “But these are the times we live in.”

A self-styled history buff, Beck dreams of a country populated by George Washingtons—a personal role model of his—and he says he once tried to live by the founding president’s “rules of civility,” an antiquated etiquette guide that instructs adherents to always sit with two feet on the ground and forbids them to enter a room where another person is reading. “I couldn’t do them for a day,” he admits, offering no hint of irony in his quest for Washingtonian grandeur. “I mean, I got the part where I don’t pick the lice off my friend in front of others.”

But Beck’s ultimate success—as a conservative tastemaker, a cable-news killer, or a national savior—will depend on the continued loyalty of his rabid fans. And to foster that devotion, Beck will turn to a different role model: “When you’re true to yourself—not the audience that reads about me in the newspaper or sees a clip someplace, but the audience that actually comes and watches, just like Oprah—they get to know you and they sense something genuine.”

Indeed, the fealty of Beck’s fan base has always been driven, in large part, by his soul-baring transparency. (He once famously opened an interview with Sarah Palin on Fox by reading an entry from his diary.) It’s a fact that hasn’t escaped the executives tasked with monetizing his brand.

“The Glenn Beck radio program and the Glenn Beck TV program are both the same, which is that they’re a Glenn Beck reality show,” says Chris Balfe, president of Beck’s company Mercury Radio Arts. “If you followed Glenn around holding a microphone, or sat and talked to him for three hours, this is what he would say. And in that way, it’s a peek inside his life and his brain and his thoughts in a way that’s different from a performance that’s given by a host.”

Never has Beck’s audience been granted such ceaseless access to his life, brain, and thoughts as they have with GBTV. The only question is whether they will continue to pay $9.95 per month for it.