Last June Glenn Beck signed off from Fox News after a tumultuous run marked by big ratings and sometimes bigger controversies. Since September, however, he's been trying to forge a new path in the media business with GBTV, a subscription-only online TV network featuring his live, two-hour, daily show.
It's the latest piece in his effort to turn a personal brand into a multimedia business connecting directly with fans -- no TV network required. GBTV joins the conservative news site The Blaze and the deals site Markdown.com, both from Mr. Beck's Mercury Radio Arts. A print edition of The Blaze has published two issues already.
And now Mr. Beck is speaking at Ad Age 's Media Evolved conference in New York on Nov. 15. He is politically polarizing -- no less than when he asserted that President Obama is a "racist," a remark he later called a mistake and "inaccurate" -- so some people have wondered why Ad Age asked him to participate. It won't be for politics: He and Betsy Morgan, the former Huffington Post CEO now running The Blaze, are going to talk about their business results so far, how they plan to make their paid-content model work and consumers' changing media habits.
We recently spoke with Chris Balfe, president of Mercury Radio Arts, and Ms. Morgan, about Mr. Beck's fledgling multimedia ventures.
Advertising Age: How many subscriptions have you sold to GBTV, which ComScore says registered 800,000 unique visitors in September?
Chris Balfe: As was reported previously, at launch we had over 230,000 subscribers that were paying for one of the products. We were thrilled with that reaction and what we can say is that we continue to see steady subscriber increases. We started ahead of the game and are really happy that we're taking an audience not used to watching long-form content any place other than television and you look at YouTube's average length of engagement versus what we've done, and it's pretty amazing.
Ad Age : What's the breakdown in sales between the $4.95 subscriptions and the $9.95 subscriptions?
Mr. Balfe: What I can say is that it's been overwhelmingly the premium tier. Our thought process around giving access at a lower price was that we wanted the barrier to entry to access Glenn's show to be as low as possible. We said $4.95 is a few cups of coffee or any other lame metaphor you want to use. It's pretty insignificant. We would love to have had it been 99 cents, but this is network-quality television and that 's expensive.
Then $9.95 gives you the total package. We hoped that people would say, "I want more from Glenn than just Glenn's show" because that was the whole point of GBTV.
Ad Age : GBTV is a paid product, but do you also have advertisers?
Mr. Balfe: We do have a limited number of advertisers that wanted to extend their relationship with Glenn. It's not a critical piece for us, but it's a good additive opportunity. One example is Tax Resolution Services.
Ad Age : How do the three platforms -- GBTV, The Blaze and Markdown.com -- work together?
Mr. Balfe: We really have created every conceivable business model for our audience to work with us online and access our content online. If you just want to read some articles and have deep connection with content at a free level, that 's what The Blaze is about. At the next level, if you want to get engaged with high-quality online television, there's GBTV. And if you want to do business with a daily-deal-style site and e-commerce, that 's where Markdown.com fits into the overall puzzle.
Betsy Morgan: One of the things that attracted me to come here and join Chris and Glenn is that Mercury is not a static, one-dimensional environment. We're serving our audience on a lot of different platforms. If you look at my previous experience at The Huffington Post, we were doing a very, very specific thing very, very well. And we grew a bunch of traffic, grew a bunch of brand value, and attached revenue to it.
I think Mercury is a much, much different organization where Glenn has shown great capability and capacity to be successful on a bunch of different platforms. One thing he said when I joined is that The Blaze is a multimedia operation. Nine months into my tenure, a year and a half after launch, we have a fast-growing website, we have a subscription print magazine called The Blaze, which is two issues in, and we're about to publish the third, we've hired TV people to provide news content for GBTV and we're doing independent things and more and more for GBTV. And if you listen from 9 to 12 on the radio, we're doing Blaze news spots. In really, really short order -- dare I say there's not another media property today that has come out with such force on a bunch of different platform all servicing a very specific audience. I think all of those things aren't one-offs or novelties; we are growing real businesses in all areas.
Ad Age : Seven weeks in, what has surprised you about GBTV viewers?
Mr. Balfe: Two things have stuck out to me about usage statistics. First, the usage of the product has been consistent since Day One. It's great to have a lot of people sign up, but we don't want it to be like a gym membership where people sign up and then never use it. We want a really engaged and active user base. So what we have seen is a higher number of people watching seven weeks in than at launch. The second part is that on the first day, 80% of subscribers watched Glenn's show live. Now, it's 50-50 live vs. on demand. Users are really using the technology to watch at their convenience.
Ad Age : What challenges have you experienced in building an online TV network?
Mr. Balfe: One is that in doing a television show at CNN or Fox News, there's the expectation of infrastructure already being in place to do things, for example, to have a teleprompter. When we set out to build GBTV as both a show and network, we maybe underestimated how much time and how resource-intensive it would be to build up some of core functions. So we had to invest in a bunch of things to round out the skillset and tech resources we needed to support a real network.
Buy your ticket today for Ad Age 's second annual Media Evolved.