Beck, Olbermann, Couric charting new waters

Glenn Beck “needs Fox more than Fox needs him,” radio host and liberal pundit Bill Press said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” by way of analyzing the host’s forced-smiles departure from Fox News Channel.

Still, Beck’s exit — following on the heels of Keith Olbermann’s split from MSNBC, Oprah Winfrey creating her own network, and Katie Couric contemplating her next act — probes a bigger issue, one that asks whether news and opinion hosts have become big enough to survive beyond the nurturing confines of their mother ships.

Can individual talent stand alone as its own brand? In the age of the Oprah Winfrey Network, we’re apparently going to find out on more fronts than one.

Granted, not everyone is Oprah, and when it comes to OWN, even Oprah might not be Oprah. Egos being what they are, though, it’s going to take a while for other personalities to determine whether they have the juice to launch their own self-directed, multimedia enterprises.

Olbermann, certainly, is gambling he has what it takes, having thrown in with Current TV, an outfit with a marginal public profile. Not only will he host a nightly program, but the MSNBC alum will double as “chief news officer,” affording him the opportunity to develop other fare, as he put it, “produced independent from corporate interference.”

Exhibiting typical bravado, Beck pledged to be bigger than ever even without his current pulpit. “We will find each other … and I’m going to be showing you other ways for us to connect,” he said of his impending leave-taking, while remaining coy about his actual plans — provided the apocalypse he keeps hinting at doesn’t derail them.

Couric, meanwhile, is exploring new frontiers after a five-year run anchoring “The CBS Evening News” that produced a few journalistic highlights but precious little to jar the network out of its third-place doldrums.

Like Anderson Cooper’s expansion from his CNN show to a second gig in syndication, Couric — who said in a “Today” interview that syndication might “give me a little more wiggle room to show my personality” — will test the multifaceted appeal of a nonpartisan talent who doesn’t draw an audience via polarizing opinion.

Historically, even those with solid news credentials have often found it difficult to hop from one platform to another. Jane Pauley — like Couric, another beloved “Today” host — fell on her face when she finally tried going the daytime syndication route.

To be fair, Pauley was hardly the first big-name anchor to find that encores aren’t so easy. Ted Koppel went on to produce classy documentaries for Discovery without finding much of an audience, and Dan Rather has languished in the HDNet wilderness.

Far from flying solo, the prevailing formula has been for talent to leverage TV to market their other ventures. Bill O’Reilly’s books become bestsellers because he can flog them to millions nightly on Fox News.

More recently, though, talent has been able to utilize avenues like social media — see Olbermann and Charlie Sheen’s live-from-exile Twitter blasts — to bypass traditional platforms and communicate directly with their fans. (In this context, Twitter’s use of the term “follower” becomes even more appropriate, if occasionally a little creepy.)

Are those contingents large enough to rival broadcast and well-distributed cable networks? Clearly not, even in an age of TV fragmentation. But are they potentially viable foundations — especially if a core constituency can be convinced to pay for the product, as Beck has done with his live appearances? That’s what we’re about to find out.

Of course, there’s no bigger brand name than Winfrey, and her experience with OWN — after the inevitable hullaballoo that accompanied its birth — has thus far been less than overwhelming. Part of that might stem from a miscalculation on her part, allowing the introduction of her eponymous channel to overlap with the wind-up of her syndicated showcase.

Looking ahead, it’s hard to imagine more unlikely bedfellows than Beck and Olbermann, but they’re plunging into the same uncharted waters — each betting his persona is bigger than a single program, and doesn’t necessarily require a media conglomerate’s promotional clout to connect with viewers and listeners.

Although Beck’s on-air rants and evangelistic fervor have invited comparisons to “Network’s” raging prophet Howard Beale, the question, strictly from a business perspective, is whether being mad as hell is the same thing as being crazy. BRIAN LOWRY

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