Liam Hehir: Unlikely source of inspiration for Campbell


He will probably not find the comparison flattering, but I think axed television presenter John Campbell has more than a bit of Glenn Beck about him.

For those who can't quite place the name, Beck once hosted an eponymous current affairs program on Fox News (having migrated there from CNN). An avowed conservative, he often focused on perceived corruption and extremism within the Obama administration.

The style of Glenn Beck could be characterised as emotional, populist, sensationalist, earnest and, sometimes, paranoid – all adjectives which could also be quite fairly applied to Campbell Live's programming.

There will be plenty of commentators who would contest this association on the grounds that Beck is Rightwing, and therefore evil and stupid, whereas Campbell is Leftwing, and therefore virtuous and enlightened. However, that would be a distinction based on distaste for an opposing ideology, rather than on any fundamental dissimilarity between the crusading style and partisan programming on each show. 

And one thing both men definitely had in common was the way they became such an anathema to the governing establishment of their respective countries.

If there is a difference, however, it's probably that Glenn Beck was a lot more successful than Campbell Live. It was a consistent ratings champion and it wasn't at all rare for Beck's show to pull a bigger audience than all of his competitors combined. While, John Campbell's ratings rallied as his program circled the drain, they had been fairly dire for a much longer period.

As it happened, however, strong ratings and a dedicated partisan fan base weren't enough to save Glenn Beck, which was canned by Fox in 2011.

While we layman might simply look at audience numbers and conclude that all was well, the experienced television executives running Fox knew they had a problem . Reports at the time were that the controversial nature of the show depressed advertising revenue – a phenomenon that is apparently called "empty calories" in the US news business.

I don't know if the same dynamic was at play between Campbell and TV3. But despite all the hyperventilating from the usual suspects, you can be fairly sure the programme was cut for commercial, rather than political, reasons. There's quite a bit to running a large media corporation and I wouldn't be eager to second guess the decisions of what is, after all, a private company just because some Twitter users are upset about losing a favoured show.

One thing you can be certain of, however, is that if there was money to be made giving nightly, televised comfort to the vocal minority who think New Zealand has become a dystopian hellhole then Campbell Live would be thriving. Even if TV3's owners were hardcore libertarians, there is no way that a mere ideological disagreement would be allowed to get in the way of a good return. As Lenin said, "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them."

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Hopefully, Campbell will find something professionally fulfilling to do before too long. With his profile and experience he won't be short of options. You could easily see him slotting into some comfortable role in a centre-Left environment like Radio New Zealand.

But if he's feeling a little entrepreneurial, maybe he could take some inspiration from his mirror universe counterpart.

On his sacking from Fox, Glenn Beck launched his own subscription news service called GBTV (now called TheBlaze). Freed from the constraints of mainstream television and the advertising revenue model, Beck's enterprise has gone from strength to strength. Initially an Internet and radio only service, it was back on television as its own satellite channel within a year. 

Oh, and he's pulled in millions and millions of dollars as a result.

Last year, he met with Google chairman Eric Schmidt  who went as far as to say that "people are going to be studying what Glenn did for years, and trying to replicate it. To have a model where you have Internet and cable companies working together - it's extraordinary."

Granted, New Zealand's media market is tiny compared to America's. On the other hand, however, it's never been easier to get your message out and there are fewer barriers to the creation and distribution of content than ever before. The Internet has democratised media in a way not seen since the invention of Gutenberg's printing press.

If just 50,000 of those who signed the various "Save Campbell Live" petitions agreed to pay a small monthly subscription then you would expect Campbell's team would have enough to get a show going. And without network interference, they would be free to make exactly the kind of show they wanted. Of course, that would require people to put their money where their mouth is.

 - Stuff

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