Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Glenn Beck Didn't Invent The Overton Window

It's OK if you don't want to read this because it's polluted with Glenn Beck.

But this is about a novel written entirely for commercial purposes targeting a very specific and huge audience that's been #1 on Amazon and NYTimes and gosh knows where else for weeks and weeks. It's about how and why that sales record was achieved, not about politics.

I have loads of opinions about the persona Glenn Beck shows on TV, positive, negative, neutral, plus professional opinions and a lot more opinions -- all of which are irrelevant to the point of this blog post, but let's get some of them out of the way first.

1. He says things I know to be true about American History
2. He says things I know to be false about American History
3. He says things I know to be irrelevant about American History
4. He says things I know to be uninteresting about current events
5. He says things I know to be highly commercial, very slick pitches
6. He says things I DO NOT KNOW and have to go look up.
7. He says things I forgot but really need to keep in mind.
8. He says things I need to create an opinion about, but don't have one
9. He says things I'd rather not create an opinion about
10. He does NOT say the things I would like to hear him say, and the lack puts his work in the "Failure of Imagination" category I've blogged about here:




He digs up facts and carefully leaves out facts so the scattering of facts will seem to make sense and then lead people to a particular conclusion.

But if you include all the facts, you would come to a different conclusion.

I have opinions about the conclusions he appears to be leading his audience to but my opinions don't matter one whit.

If I understand the mechanism of what he's doing correctly, he's not leading that audience, he's following it by careful analysis of instant ratings of his shows. His techniques are worthy of careful study by anyone who wants to gather a pro-Romance readership into a coherent force in the commercial world.

Professional writers study like this for a living. Leave your opinions at the door like muddy galoshes and walk into someone else's life.

Glenn Beck's pick-and-choose facts to make a point is the technique used in every textbook I can think of offhand. I use it myself, on this blog, to clarify writing craft issues, and to put some spring in the springboards I build into story-ideas I hope someone will dive into.

Pick-n-choose is a technique which is fun and works fine if everyone is in on the joke, as I pointed out here where I discussed how history is being lost:


Glenn Beck and the organization behind him are really, really GOOD at "working" his audience. I can see that because sometimes on a couple of things I'm part of that audience. I'm just the sort who doesn't like to be "worked" so I wait to get the point, then flip the channel.

But the "Glenn Beck Phenomenon" is something to be studied, carefully.

It's not worth forming a political opinion about the content of Beck's shows. But it's worth studying that content because it reveals a great deal about audiences, not just his audience.

Read my post on targeting a readership, and the posts cited in it.


Here though we are focusing on finding and engaging an audience.  We are not focusing on "who" Glenn Beck is or wants to be.

Occasionally, I have the TV on when he's on and I comparison shop news broadcasts, surfing from one channel to another to avoid commercials or analyze commercials. Sometimes I watch most of his segments, though, and it is very instructive.

As a writer, I don't see or hear the same things readers and viewers do. I see an entirely different world, a world of mechanisms that produce illusions rather than the illusions themselves.

Beck produces and projects a powerful illusion which I'm certain has nothing at all to do with who he really is.

His technique would work for any subject. He's combined the "reality show" with the "news commentary" shows that have become so popular.

I could fill this blog with an analysis of the acting, directing, writing, and research on his TV show. But why bother? I'm not in the business of shaping your opinions!

I just want you to notice
a) that he's invented a genre
b) that he's popularized it just as we want to popularize SFR and PNR

I would recommend, though, that if you don't understand what that "Glenn Beck" TV show is, take a look at the spiffy, flashy glennbeck.com top page.

Also note they'll sell you, for about $75/year, access to exclusive web broadcasts of Beck's shows via Insider Extreme. His TV show in the late afternoon spot (it's rebroadcast later at night, too) pulls 3 million viewers, his radio show reaches more. It's amazing how many have turned away from TV to radio! Relative to other TV broadcast or cable shows' audience sizes, we're talking a major audience here. Sports pulls more, as do live-disasters, but for a boring lecture complete with blackboards, this audience size is huge. And they read. They buy books at amazon!

Note the masthead on Glennbeck.com --

Doesn't that sound like the mixed-genre PNR or SFR that we love so much?

THE FUSION OF ROMANCE AND LOVE (not the same thing, but few know that)

Do you begin to see what fascinates me about this Glenn Beck Phenomenon?

We need to do that. So we need to figure out what he did and how. And why it works so well. We need to avoid having our imagination fail just because of the content of a message. We need to focus on how the message is delivered, to whom, and why they eat it up.

Notice the ART behind the graphic displays, the colors, the words, the images, and the html behind that display on glennbeck.com .

It takes tremendous art and technical expertise (I mean extremely expensive expertise) to achieve that trashy look. It's so expensive it looks cheap, which is its whole point. Glitzy. Slick. Ooozing money from every pixel.

You need to look rich to attract riches.

But riches aren't the point. Examine that top page closely, all the way to the bottom margin. The art of that page actually depicts the projected Glenn Beck persona (I don't know this man, or really anything about the real person. I am examining only the created persona, not the real person. Think of him as a character in a book you didn't like. Now figure out why you didn't like it (or why you did).)

Now go to amazon.com and check out Glenn Beck's books.

Glenn Beck Books

Next check out his 2010 novel, THE OVERTON WINDOW on kindle

The Overton Window

Note that The Overton Window by Glenn Beck has over 500 customer reviews (nevermind the fulminating - the number is what counts here)

Here's the link to the Hardcover page which has a "look inside" feature

The Overton Window by Glenn Beck

Check the Acknowledgements page, page VII.

Look at all the people - with names.

Note JACK HENDERSON "for pouring his heart and soul into this project"

I have read this book, every word, cover to cover.

I read it because of the title, and a sound-byte I heard in passing on Beck's TV show -- that he got this "Overton Window" concept from a think tank.

I went to the think-tank's web page:

And I googled and found via wikipedia that there is an entire mathematical branch devoted to calculating the behavior of large populations.  Well, I knew that, but not the research of the last few years. 

The Overton Window is an application of those mathematical principles which form the basis of "Madison Avenue" advertising (and all political advertising, especially now the YouTube videos). One of the founders of the Mackinac Center think tank named Overton codified the application to make it useful for politics.

The objective of the application is to MOLD PUBLIC OPINION - and then to MOVE PUBLIC OPINION toward the objective you have chosen.

It doesn't matter what the objective is, this principle and process applies to changing the behavior of large masses of people.

The think tank applies it to politics, as Beck's novel illustrates (but without the mathematical clarity that would allow you to use it yourself). I'm sure you've seen that Overton Window principle being aimed at you from your TV screen - magazine covers, articles, books.

It lends itself to use by those who use the technique I described Beck using - selecting certain facts from the mish-mosh of history in order to illustrate a point. The point may be true, but not the only truth worth considering. Having someone who sees such a point select the facts that describe that point is a convenient way to learn - provided you don't forget that there exist OTHER facts that might muddy the picture.

But this principle of the Overton Window is THE touchstone, gut-level, seat-of-the-pants intuitive knowledge used by all successful publishers and editors. Just read about it on the Mackinaw website. And note how THEY are yelling about Glenn Beck popularizing their technique! It was obscure and known only to scientists before Beck put it on TV and in a novel.

He reached down and selected this ONE technique that supports his overall point - that someone is manipulating you to a plan you didn't know existed.

But now many millions of people know the term OVERTON WINDOW (even if they have no clue what it means) and they didn't know it before.

The book is a best seller even though it's very badly scarred.  It's full of expository lumps, badly designed scenes, and rewrite scars.  I felt as I read it that there was a powerful writer involved who desperately wanted to say something, but had no idea how to SHOW DON'T TELL, and at least two other hands who tried desperately to tame that exposition into an actual plot.  There are flashes of brilliance squashed by exposition.  But there is a hand in it that is strong and experienced at "Intrigue" genre.  That hand plastered over the cracks so well very few readers would know or care that they're there.   The whole book would never make it without Glenn Beck's marketing machine behind it. It's just not good enough. 

This Overton Window technique is the primary tool of political campaign strategists. And that strategy is designed to get you to do what they want you to do, even if (or especially if) it is against your best interests to do that.

If you've heard of Glenn Beck's 8/28 gathering in Washington, you've heard of it because that event was formulated to illustrate The Overton Window technique, though I've never heard Beck say so (but I don't listen to every word).  

That's what happened with STAR TREK - it moved The Overton Window for the imagination of the American (and eventually worldwide) Public.

Understanding how "they" use this "Overton Window" technique to change the behavior of huge numbers of people, to create "movements" out of scattered opinions, clarified a lot for me about what happened when Star Trek hit the airwaves. Star Trek went on the air before color TV was widely distributed, before Cable TV was anything but a curiosity.

It's impossible for me to determine the cause-effect chain between Star Trek and coincident and subsequent events and technological applications, or even the flow of basic research dollars.

But in the Astrological view of the universe, cause-effect does not work along a time-line as it does in the scientific view of the universe.

In Astrology, effect can precede cause. It's called an "orb of influence" - and before the actual transit contact happens, an Event described by that symbolism can materialize as an effect caused by that whatever might happen at the contact.  That concept spooks scientists, but Fantasy writers and readers have no problem with it.

So leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, looking at the timeline of history from 1950 to 2010, you can see the sweeping eruption of creativity subsequent to Star Trek's being greenlighted for production.

20 years after first airing, when those in college when Trek first aired had achieved positions of power in the scientific community, technological innovation exploded. The basics were laid down by college age kids during the first airing of Trek.

We, as a culture, went through an OPENING OF A WINDOW INTO THE FUTURE - a glimpse of what we might do energized creativity and thousands of very intelligent people surged through that window into our future.

Star Trek opened the technological window into our future.

But Star Trek fans opened another window, a window into emotional maturity in Relationships, a window into Romance, Love, and what Gene Roddenberry kept expounding on, "Wisdom" -- he would say, "In the future, WHEN WE ARE WISE,..." we will do this and that differently.

It's now up to the Romance community which has embraced SF and Paranormal formats to pry open that Overton Window, and shove it along the track in the direction of HAPPILY EVER AFTER being a logical, reasonable, normal expectation of life.

Live Long and Prosper,
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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