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Is Sean Hannity Afraid Of Glenn Beck?

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Yesterday afternoon, The Plum Line's Greg Sargent posted a speculative bit of Fox News palace intrigue, wondering if Sean Hannity's recent targeting of Kevin Jennings, the current director of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, was driven by Hannity's fear of the sudden rise of Glenn Beck. Sargent's premise is that Beck's infamy is growing by leaps and bounds because of Beck's recent "scalpings," and that he'd better go out and get one of his own to guard his prime-time flank. As Sargent points out, the numbers are compelling:

So what's driving Hannity's jihad? One wonders whether it's driven by the fact that Beck is experiencing a ratings surge that has to have Hannity spooked big time. The just-released Fox News third quarter ratings show that Beck's surge dwarfs Hannity's by a wide margin.

Beck's overall viewership has climbed an astonishing 89%, and in the key 25-54 demo it has exploded by 136%. By contrast, Hannity's overall viewership has climbed a measly nine percent, and in the key demo it's jumped only 17%.

Pretty paltry performance, given all the passions unleashed by the Age of Obama. What's more, Beck inhabits the lowly 5 PM slot while Hannity enjoys the plum 9 PM perch.

Curiouser and curiouser, indeed! Of course, it's hard to know for certain what's going on behind the scenes at Fox News. Most of what I've heard is of the "Chinese whispers" variety. But, heck! Seeing as Sargent's opened the door to speculation, why not grab a handful of grains of salt to suck on and go walking on through!

Does Glenn Beck desire a prime-time perch for himself? It's hard to imagine that he doesn't. He's delivering monster numbers at 5 p.m., when much of the teevee audience is at work or in rush-hour traffic. Take a look at this past Wednesday's ratings scorecard: Beck's evening-time ratings spike is pretty gaudy. Only O'Reilly's doing better numbers. And this is pretty typical stuff. Looking at this, you get a little dizzy thinking about the draw that Beck could bring after 7 p.m.

The only problem is that the Fox News lineup of Shepard Smith, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren is like a fleet of ratings-garnering battleships, with everyone typically blowing out their news competitors. It's really hard to imagine that anyone in that lineup is vulnerable. Still, Beck's potential energy is undeniable, so let's examine this further.

Fox News viewers occasionally voice their dislike of Shepard Smith, for example, because Smith has this tendency to speak his mind and not reflexively spit paleoconservative cant. I suppose that you could bring Beck to that hour, and unleash Fox's Four Horsepersons Of The Apocalypse: Death, Famine, War, and Scientology. The problem there is that Smith is an actual news anchor and, without him, Fox News loses someone who can package stories downmarket to affiliates.

Van Susteren seems to be an appealing target for Beck fans who want to see their hero in prime time. Based on the numbers, she's the most vulnerable. And based on content, I have to imagine that if you like Glenn Beck, you probably prefer Sean Hannity's brand of programming to Van Susteren. The only thing that gives me pause here are those Chinese Whispers, which tell me that, internally, having a woman in that lineup is seen as a boon to the bottom line. Van Susteren has also helped her cause by developing a close relationship with Sarah Palin, who is a ratings godsend.

And there's no moving Bill O'Reilly, who consistently delivers top numbers, and who -- like him or not -- has the sort of broadcast talent that you don't just idly cast aside.

That, of course, leaves Hannity as the odd man out if you move Beck to prime time. Of course, this does feel a little crazy to suggest. Glenn Beck presents the only scenario in which you'd even dream of calling Sean Hannity vulnerable. But, really, all that Sargent suggests is that Hannity is acting on perceived vulnerability. So how does Hannity likely view the landscape?

Back when Beck was announced as Foxy-to-be, Hannity offered him a big showy welcome, which felt, even at the time, a little like a territorial pissing. Since then, Beck's been the superstar: making waves, taking those scalps, and getting the cable news network to come fully behind his Teabaggy 9/12 Project.

I can imagine that Hannity might find the attention lavished on Beck to be a little bit galling. Hannity's had the longer career, after all, during which he's dutifully suited up, sat behind a desk and occasionally had to fend off actual arguments: from Alan Colmes in the pre-solo days, to various panels now. The deck was always stacked in Hannity's favor, of course, but he had to at least offer the appearance of an honest broker of debate. Beck doesn't have to do any of that. Beck gets to stand up and riff about whatever he wants, pull morning-radio stunts and, really, not even worry about making any sense at all.

Beck flaunts the fact that he's the one guy on the network who never has to play it straight or even maintain intellectual consistency. Hannity, by contrast, is more of a duty-bound party hack and a broadcast traditionalist. He's doing the same work, carrying water for conservative interests, that he's always done, and makes the attempt to do so with gravity and professionalism. Beck takes that water, and uses it to boil a rubber frog. The next day, no one is talking about what happened on Sean Hannity's show. As it turns out, putting a mainstream face on the fringe isn't as attention-grabbing as letting your freak flag fly.

I have to imagine that there are other aspects of Beck's insurgent success that really chafe at Hannity. Take the whole 9/12 Project initiative. For a long time, now, Hannity has been sponsoring his own branded "Freedom Concert" series, and it's never received the sort of all-in support that Fox News has given Beck's 9/12 Project. And let's face it: Hannity's been working the "America is the greatest and most special country in the world" shtick for a long time. But you know what he's never, ever done to make his point? WEEP ABOUT IT. Beck's likely to have racked up a ton of "bro code" violations by now on that regard.

And finally, we have the race for "scalps." Van Jones, ACORN, the National Endowment for the Arts Yosi Sargent... Beck's the guy who's become associated with all of them, and he's reaped the rating benefits. It makes a certain amount of sense that Hannity would go out gunning for his own. I have to imagine, though, that Hannity understands what very few people even talk about: Beck didn't actually do a lot of work to earn them. No one has fallen from grace because of enterprise reporting done by Glenn Beck. Andrew Breitbart, essentially, broke the ACORN scandal. With Patrick Courrielche, he got the ball rolling against Yosi Sergant at the NEA. Heck, Van Jones was cut by his own hand: if he'd never signed a Truther Petition, he'd be pushing memos around the White House to this day. The credit that Beck's received for all of this? Well, as they say, he got it for cheap.

So, now, we have Hannity calling for a head of his own. It's not entirely out of step for him, but it sure feels like the actions of a hunted man. That said, let's not forget that Hannity has one trump card that will likely protect his prime-time perch for the time being: Fox can still sell national ads on his program in prime time. Right now, Color of Change is the best friend Hannity could ask for!

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