Brian Williams, Rush Limbaugh, and Audience Loyalty

February 14th, 2015 9:18 AM

It is the Voldemort of media facts. The media version of Sherlock Holmes clue of the dog that didn’t bark.

Here’s a question. What is the difference between Brian Williams and Rush Limbaugh? What is the dog that isn’t barking?

Answer? The audience. There is no sudden groundswell of outraged NBC Nightly News viewers rallying to the support of the suspended anchor, angrily demanding he be restored to his job. On the contrary, when Rush Limbaugh ran into trouble in the Sandra Fluke episode and a handful of sponsors left -- under pressure of manufactured outrage from liberal interest groups -- Rush’s audience rallied on the spot. In the end not only did Rush keep his show but the sponsors who left were punished by Rush’s audience. One of those sponsors was so stunned by the negative backfire to their departure that they begged to be taken back as a sponsor - and were refused by Rush himself. Another -- Carbonite, an online back-up company -- saw their stock plummet. The company’s CEO, outed as a supporter of the leftist and various other leftist groups later acknowledged  that the public slap in the face of Limbaugh’s audience had a negative consequence.

Over at Mediaite there is a story posted last night suddenly proclaiming that some Brian fans are flooding Facebook with demands to “#BringBrianBack”. And…gasp!…”there are over 1000 comments, the vast majority of which are demanding to bring Williams back.” Wow! Over a whole thousand comments! And the vast majority” are “demanding” to bring Brian back.

Pathetic. Suffice to say, it takes more than "the vast majority" of over a thousand people to crash a major company's stock and send an advertiser begging to be restored to advertising status on the Rush Limbaugh Show.

In all the dust-up about NBC’s Brian Williams there has been not a peep other than from this "vast majority" of "over a thousand" Facebook fans from the NBC audience demanding that Williams be restored to his anchor position post haste. Say again, not…a…peep. The occasional defender has popped up -- Dan Rather, the fired CBS anchor being one -- but a surge of support from an audience angry at the Williams suspension and possible banishment from the NBC Nightly News? It isn’t there. And notably, speaking of Dan Rather, it wasn’t there for him either.

Why? What is the difference between Rush Limbaugh and Brian Williams that makes one man the subject of a fierce audience loyalty and the other left dangling with not a peep other than this pathetic Facebook offering from his viewers? To answer that question is to discuss the revolution that is taking place in the American media.

Let’s start with Rush Limbaugh’s genre -- talk radio.

Much has been made of the fact that Brian Williams drew a weekly audience varying between 9-10 million viewers, as this story in Deadline Hollywood  illustrates. The story, run on December 23rd of last year, says “Williams snagged an average 9.360 million total viewers for the week…”

The fact is that Rush Limbaugh’s weekly audience in 2013 - a year after the Fluke episode, was sailing along with an audience of 20 million a week, as seen here.  In other words, Rush’s audience was more than twice the size of the Brian Williams audience. With the audience fiercely loyal to the host, a not so small issue as seen right this minute with the lack of support for Williams so clearly obvious. Likewise Sean Hannity cruises along right behind Rush in audience size. The other day the announcement was made that Mark Levin had just had his contract extended for another five years.

In other words? Recall a few years back when John Avlon over there at the Daily Beast was trumpeting that talk radio was “dying” and in the middle of a “flameout”?   The narrative was as bizarre as it was obviously political. And Avlon wasn’t the only one saying it, either.  

"Rush Limbaugh is Finished," assured Salon in 2013. Similar drastic predictions were made for Sean Hannity, one story asking "Are Conservatives Getting Tired of Sean Hannity?"  The answer to the latter turned out to be no. laughably no. Just as the idea that Rush Limbaugh was finished has turned out to be utterly laughable. But so it went with these kind of nutty predictions. All of them wrong.

The question, then, is what does all of this say about the American media? Not to mention America itself?

When Rush Limbaugh is outdrawing Brian Williams, and the latter’s audience can’t even be bothered to defend Williams when he’s in trouble, there is something going on here.  There is no original thought in saying that the mainstream American media monopoly is in the process of imploding. But it is time to say again that all of the talk radio naysayers of a few years ago have been shown to be not just wrong but spectacularly wrong.

The other day, as the Brian Williams business exploded, a friend told me a story of once flying on a Washington-New York shuttle when who should board but - yes indeed - Brian Williams. What caught my friend’s attention was the curiosity that Mr. Williams was wearing sunglasses - and never removed them for the flight. The thought occurred to my friend at the time that the impression radiating forth from Williams was one of self-congratulatory “cool”, an aggressive sense of pomposity. Now, in the flood of stories gushing from NBC is this one in the New York Post in which it is reported that “One longtime NBC employee who has worked with Williams on several occasions had a few dirty words to describe the celebrated anchor, calling him a “real pompous piece of s–t.” ….He’s an a–hole” he fumed.”

This is not the kind of description of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Mark Levin or Glenn Beck heard from either colleagues or audience fans. Indeed, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes once described Hannity as "probably the nicest guy in the (News Corporation) building.”  

The negatives attached to talk radio hosts almost universally come from political adversaries, along with the repeated predictions that this time one of them -- if not the entire talk radio industry itself -- is toast.

Yet the end of talk radio never comes as predicted, in spite of the best efforts of this or that leftist group out there to bring down Rush or somebody else. Which says something about the difference between these talk radio hosts and the liberal elitism which Mr. Williams came to represent. Talk radio has an almost gut-level connection with its audience. Indeed, to listen to the shows it is obvious that callers feel they are talking to a member of their extended family. Callers to Rush’s show regularly praise him as someone they have listened to for years. They voluntarily identify themselves as “Rush babies” or “long time listeners.” The sentiment is equally clear with Hannity and Levin, the latter of whom regularly refers sentimentally to his “beloved audience.”

This audience bond was simply not there with Brian Williams. And when he brought himself down it was quickly all-too-apparent that his audience had not the slightest intention of rallying to his side. This doesn’t mean that at some point, suitably humbled and in search of forgiveness, Williams couldn’t recover and get the all-American second chance.  But if so, it isn’t in sight yet from an audience loyalty perspective.

The inescapable fact of the matter here is that the breaking of the liberal media monopoly by Rush and his talk radio colleagues, by Fox News and, no small thing, the Internet has exposed a not-so-dirty little secret. The secret? The audience for liberal media was always tenuous. But the fact of this was never clear because there was nothing but liberal media. The moment it was possible for the audience to escape to other venues, they did. In droves.

Well aside from the peculiarities of Brian Williams that had him effectively and repeatedly shooting himself in the foot, what is really on display here is another marker on the road to oblivion for the liberal media. The NBC Nightly News may have removed Brian Williams’s name from the show’s logo, but the fact of the matter is that the network nightly news that has reigned as king of the media realm since the 1950’s is vanishing. Slowly to be sure, but without doubt unmistakably.

These are dinosaurs. And extinction is on the way.

Meanwhile? Talk radio lives and thrives for a reason. And that reason is called audience loyalty. Rush Limbaugh has it. Talk radio has it.  Brian Williams didn’t have it. And the betting here is that as time keeps moving on, it will become all too apparent that this problem isn’t unique to Brian Williams - but rather a fatal flaw for the institution of elitist liberal television nightly news shows as well.