Know Your Right Wingers
An Education with Glenn Beck: Reviewing His New TV Show—For Kids
Hey young Americans, listen up! Glenn Beck’s got a new show just for you! And, as is his way, an apocalyptic vision to go with it.
“We’re all so screwed if kids don’t know how to have some survival skills,” the conservative talk show host told viewers on the inaugural episode of his new children’s show, Liberty Treehouse, which airs on his latest venture—the online, subscription-based Glenn Beck TV.
Beck, then speaking to the parents, argued that Americans are talking down to their children and preventing them from reaching their potential. Instead, he suggests that kids should be learning how to do things the Founding Fathers did—you know, like making sails and tents.
Take George Washington who, at 16, was out in the forest with bears and Native American tribes. Beck says he sees no reason why all children—or at least those eight and older—shouldn’t be similarly responsible, and he promises that Liberty Treehouse will treat them with the respect they deserve.
In fact, he has so much faith in young Americans that he’d like Tea Party rocker Ted Nugent to take some kids, between the ages of 10 and 15, into the woods for three days, where they’ll sleep and cook their own food. “It’s like Boy Scouts gone hairy,” he tells Raj Nair, the show’s host.
But until Nugent’s schedule opens up, precocious young conservatives are left with Liberty Treehouse, which isn’t nearly as exciting.
Liberty Treehouse is just one part of GBTV, which Beck created after leaving Fox News in June. While $4.95-a-month will get you Beck’s main talk show, you’ll have to pay $9.95 per month to watch Treehouse and GBTV’s other shows.
A Glenn Beck children’s show certainly has potential for drama: Muppets acting out the Cloward-Piven strategy, for instance, in a setting where Beck’s blackboard approach actually makes sense.
But when Beck announced that his new network would feature a kid’s show, Talking Points Memo advised its readers to “hide your children.” And, with good reason—Glenn Beck has often crusaded against impressionable children, including comparing victims in the Norway attack with Hitler youth, suggesting that wealth should be a key factor in educational opportunities, and, of course, chiding Sesame Street for “spreading left-wing propaganda.”
After watching the show’s first week of episodes, it’s clear that the actual product isn’t just devoid of Beck’s usual mania—it’s downright dull.
Beck has passed hosting duties to Nair, a young man with the non-threatening enthusiasm of a broadcast journalism major. Nair has adopted Beck’s exaggerated hand gestures, but is more covert about his politics, preferring instead to engage in dim talk about standing by your principles.
When Beck asked Nair in a pre-launch interview what he was passionate about, he hesitated and said, “Injustices…” while shaking his head back and forth. That’s a conundrum for Fox News’ body language analysts to puzzle over, but it certainly doesn’t make for great TV, even online.
In a way, the show’s ideological castration makes sense.
If a child has parents willing to fork over $9.99 a month for the premium GBTV package, they’re probably getting fairly large doses of Fox News, conservative talk radio, and Ayn Rand at home. All Treehouse has to do, then, is activate them with vague talk about beliefs, principles, and kid power.
Even simply shifting the focus onto politics, to a degree, marks a notable difference from children’s programming of years past, which regularly avoided controversial subject matter. And some question the move.
“I can’t think of an area that we stayed further away than politics,” Helen Boehm, an expert on educational children’s programming who has worked at both Fox Broadcasting and MTV Networks/Nickelodeon, told Politico recently.
“What concerns me is that there’s such a blurring between what’s real and what’s not,” she said regarding Beck’s typical approach toward content. “I’m concerned that kids aren’t always differentiating between what is news and what’s not real. Do they have a fact-checker?”
To Nair’s credit, he overtly throws his heart into selling the often-lackluster material, though he seems to have stolen his methods for connecting with today’s youth from the 1990s.
When explaining the origin of Treehouse’s name (after a tree in Boston that became a popular meeting place during the American Revolution), Nair actually says, “uh-duhhh.” That’s just one clue that he, and the rest of the show’s staff, seem to be confused about the age of their audience.
GBTV’s website describes Treehouse as “a destination for the after school crowd,” which gives the show’s producers quite a bit of latitude.
Beck assures viewers that the show won’t make them feel stupid and will push them to achieve. But then, one episode focuses entirely on one pre-teen audience member’s fear of … going into space. The camera shows one fed-up teenager for all of one second.
That same space-themed episode reveals that the show even seems conflicted about a kid on its own staff.
In what’s promised as a recurring feature, a mop-haired boy named Ben tries to explain concepts that are clearly over his head. In his first appearance, he talked incessantly about wormholes, answering questions like “Is it fun?” But Ben couldn’t answer that question—he doesn’t know whether wormholes are fun. The segment has a charming “Let’s put on a show!” feel to it and comes off like a less drug-induced rendition of “David After Dentist.”
Who’s really watching this? Adults can enjoy how children pick up a topic and obsess over it, but Ben’s peers are the intended audience. Are they laughing at how wrong he is, too? Like much of Treehouse, it leaves you wondering who’s supposed to be enjoying—uh, viewing—this content.
Once per episode, former CNN contributor and Real Time with Bill Maher guest Amy Holmes talks to young viewers about recent news issues in a segment called “Behind the Headlines.”
But Holmes explains newsworthy topics like straw polls and lost satellites in a patronizing tone that should offend anyone outside of a stroller. Take her explanation of space travel: “Like in space ships, just to go from planet to planet, kind of have a good time and hang out.”
It’s not exactly skinning a boar with Ted Nugent.
The closest Treehouse gets to emulating the old-school Glenn Beck approach is with frequent appearances by historian David Barton, who made his name on controversial claims about the separation of church and state. But here, he only appears to narrate comparatively high-quality “Drive Thru History” segments—produced by the conservative Christian non-profit National Day of Prayer Task Force—on the biographies of the founding fathers. Here's one:
In fact, it seems the only people on Liberty Treehouse willing to go full Glenn Beck style aren’t even GBTV staffers.
At the end of one episode, Nair plays a tantalizing video from a Florida summer camp run along Tea Party lines. Children at the camp loudly boo a man dressed as a banker who pretends to cause inflation in a gold-based economy. One camper warns that religious liberties are under attack. But the clip was brief; I was quickly whisked back to the show’s credits and Nair’s blooper reel.
Treehouse pads its daily, hour-long run on mountains of old films whose rights were presumably easier to afford than additional staffers.
Of the episodes I watched, each had at least ten minutes of “vintage” TV footage, which ranged from a 1940 Flash Gordon serial to a Superman cartoon from … 1941. And those ten minutes of old-fashioned television don’t include the several black-and-white commercials interspersed throughout the show.
The first Friday show must have been especially cheap to produce, because it consisted of two Westerns that each ran about 26 minutes. Original content comprised only 8 minutes of that day’s hour-long show. And remember, Treehouse is part of GBTV’s premium package.
Whether Beck is trying to recreate his own childhood or just leapfrog our nostalgia back to America’s founding (“First the 40s, then the Gilded Age, and now 1789!”), it seems unfair to tell young conservatives that you have a show tailored just for them, but then make most of it about actors who lived and died before they were born. Their grandparents, however, might be interested.
Treehouse sometimes does well by its intended audience, however.
An interview with an expert on bullying was compelling and addressed an important topic, until the expert serenaded Nair with his guitar. An audience-based segment on new toys was a pleasant recreation of a network morning show feature. And it also produced Treehouse’s best footage thus far—a young girl bashing Nair with a foam bat, ignoring his pleas to stop.
Ultimately, it’s not the show’s outdated filler or ideological blandness that ruins Treehouse. The show fails because it treats its audience like, well, children. Exactly the thing Glenn Beck said it wouldn’t do.
Beck promised that Liberty Treehouse would respect young viewers’ intellectual abilities, but Treehouse is perhaps the least empowering children’s show available today.
Adolescent Pokémon trainers can be seen traveling the world without adult supervision and the Teen Titans are always foiling supervillains. Meanwhile, Treehouse’s children are reduced to baby talk news bites from Amy Holmes and swatting Nair with foam bats.
If Glenn Beck’s goal is to educate young conservatives, they at least deserve better programming than this.
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