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How and Why Howard Stern's TV Show Failed

September 22, 1999

Howard Stern Takes the Offensive on Television

"Television has changed… Standards have gone down to an all-time low, and I'm here to represent it. It's a miracle. I prayed to God for this."  -- Howard Stern

During the April 1998 press conference to announce the launch of the nationally syndicated Howard Stern television show, the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" predicted great things for his show. "I am the savior of the Tiffany Network!" said Stern as the show was announced. "I am Ed Sullivan on acid! When my show hits the airwaves…people will flock to it like maggots to fresh roadkill on a hot Texas day."

Stern also predicted that his show would rout the competition. "Saturday Night Live should now be called Saturday Night Dead… [SNL] ceased being funny when John Belushi's fat, speedball-filled corpse hit the deck… Ever since then, it's gone downhill. My show represents the future in the sense that, hey, why not have an alternative to Saturday Night Live?" Stern also added: "What's going to happen is people will tune in to Saturday Night Live and start watching the first minute or two, and it's real boring. Suddenly you tune over to see what we're doing on our show, and …people are not going to be able to tune away,"1 and insisted, "They're lazy, they're tired, they're old… This show will be good for them: It'll give them a swift kick in the ass."2

It has not turned out that way. One year since the debut of The Howard Stern Radio Show, and in spite of Stern's grandiose predictions, his show has proved a dismal failure on every count: he's lost ratings, stations and sponsors, and never even come close to threatening SNL.

In the 1997-98 television season, SNL earned an average 4.8 rating among 18-49 year olds (Stern's target audience), or an average of 5.9 million viewers. By his own standard of success, Stern would have to do at least as well to make true his claims that he would give Saturday Night Live a "swift kick in the ass." But in the first year of The Howard Stern Radio Show, he only managed to muster an average rating of 0.9 (approx.1.8 million homes) among 18-49 year olds, while in the same season, SNL averaged a 4.3 (approx. 8 million homes). Although Stern debuted with a respectable 2.7 rating last August, by June his ratings had fallen off 67 percent.

Saturday Night Live is carried on all NBC stations, and can be seen by nearly 100 percent of the country. By contrast, The Howard Stern Radio Show started out in only 79 markets, covering 70 percent of the country. Since then, the show has hemorrhaged stations, losing an incredible 42 percent in its first year. As of September 1999, it has been dropped by 33 stations, and is now available only in 46 markets.3

The demise of the show is occurring despite strong backing from network honchos. Mel Karmazin, Stern's long-time boss and staunchest defender (and then-Chairman and CEO of CBS Stations Group), was determined to put Howard Stern on broadcast television. A TV insider told a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Mel doesn't care [about image]. If he thinks he can get ratings and sell it and make money, then it's going on air." 4

In announcing Stern's arrival on broadcast television, Karmazin dismissed concerns about programming standards, saying, "I loved Ozzie and Harriet too, but this is a different time… There weren't the same kind of stories about the President of the United States on the front pages of newspapers as there are today, either. Yes, Howard talks about sex, but at 11:30 at night, in a way our lawyers are comfortable with, I don't know if it's so terrible to be talking about sex." 5 As the examples below illustrate, "talking about sex" hardly describes what passes for entertainment on The Howard Stern Radio Show.

In April 1999, Stern promised his show would deliver content never before seen on broadcast television, "We'll have nudity and lesbians. We plan to have a lot of drunken dwarfs on the show…CBS is the Tiffany network, but when I thought about it, Tiffany is a stripper's name, so we'll have a lot of strippers." 6

Stern was not able to deliver on his promise to show up Saturday Night Live, or his promise to be the savior of the Tiffany Network, but he did deliver on his promise to broadcast the raunchiest and most offensive programming ever to air on broadcast television.

The Content of The Howard Stern Radio Show

"I revolutionized this industry… Every time Ricki Lake says the word ‘penis' on the air, you have me to thank. There's a loosening up [of broadcast standards], and I seriously think our show had something to do with it…."7 -- Howard Stern

"If you put the right crap on, people will watch." -- Howard Stern

To best understand the utterly vulgar nature of The Howard Stern Radio Show, herewith some examples:

August 22:  Stern told a female guest, "I need you to nude model for me and my penis. I'm swollen bigger than Rosie O'Donnell's head. I want to show you my penis right now. I tell you, I'm so backed up I could shoot Alan B. Shepard into orbit."

October 10: Stern had a fan spread marshmallow cream on the breasts and buttocks of a stripper, then he licked the cream off.

October 17:  A 19-year-old girl came into the studio and asked Howard to shave her privates. Later in the show, a picture of a bucket of water and the razor used for the procedure was shown with the caption "Pube Bucket" underneath.

November 21:  Stern asked a bikini-clad model to play a game with him: "…If you get [a question] wrong you have to have sex with me…[we] make out, I touch your cans and you grab my ass." He later asked her, "Do you care if… the guys in the room… mess around with ourselves while we look at you… Like you can just stand and model and we mess around with ourselves."

January 16: Stern had a female guest who attempted to blow out a candle and toss a ping-pong ball with her genitals.

January 23: Stern told a female guest who had offered to be his slave, "First of all, I'm gonna need you to pee in a diaper…I wanna roll you up naked in a…carpet and put you in a shopping cart and wheel you around the station… I want you to eat [dog food] out of a dog bowl…I want you to bend over…while I throw eggs at your buttocks… your bare buttocks…and possibly eat peanut butter from Jackie's [a regular Stern sidekick on the program] toes…You're lucky I'm not asking you for sex." Just before smashing eggs on the guest's buttocks, Stern told a colleague, "It's fun to humiliate women."

February 13: Stern told one of Pamela Anderson Lee's VIP co-stars, "I would like to kiss you and chop off your feet…I wanna bite off your fingers…I wanna have sex with you and throw you in a ditch…[and] chop your head off."

May 8: As a consolation prize to a grandfather and grandson who lost out in a previous "dating game" contest, Stern sets them up with a prostitute who had offered to sleep with both of them.

May 22: Stern hosted a "Lesbian Dating Game" in which female contestants vied for the opportunity to have sex with two female porn stars.

The Backlash

"What people need to realize is that it's the sponsors of the show that are ultimately responsible for airing this smut. Without their ad dollars, there would be no Howard Stern Radio Show." -- L. Brent Bozell III

There was an immediate backlash against The Howard Stern Radio Show from the moment it debuted on broadcast television. The Parents Television Council, the American Decency Association (a spin-off of the American Family Association), and others vocally opposed airing the show on broadcast television.

Comedian Steve Allen, PTC's National Honorary Co-Chair, noted, "We live in a time when kinds of behavior that used to get you fired now have precisely the opposite effect…It's made Stern a national name and Madonna a superstar…Those of us who are shocked and revolted by some of what we see have…the right to raise hell about it." 8 The PTC and its members have been doing just that, and with great success.

The Parents Television Council organized a campaign to contact the sponsors of Stern's television program, and the stations that carry Stern. Many of the sponsors contacted agreed not to sponsor the show again, and many more have since stopped advertising on it. . As the campaign became more successful, Stern began to lash out at his critics, and began expressing concerns about the future viability of not only his TV show, but his radio program as well. In his April 2 radio broadcast, Stern somberly told his listeners, "Don't allow these whacked out organizations…who want to clean up the airwaves rule your life. And the way to fight them…support this show…because we will be gone…they will win…they will take away what we love."

More recently, Stern urged his listeners to support his remaining sponsors before they withdraw their financial support as well: "This is all I can say…This is the only thing I can think of to do. When you hear commercials on our stations, no matter where you listen, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago..." Sidekick Robin Quivers chimed in, "Run, don't walk, to those sponsors." Howard continued, "Yeah, try to support them…go to our sponsors."

TV Stations Across the Country Drop the Stern Show

"Simply put, he crossed the line… at some point you have to ask yourself, ‘Does this have any value at all?'" -- Larry Landaker, general manager of Lubbock, Texas's KJTV, which dropped the show.

Before the first episode of The Howard Stern Radio Show even aired, stations were already declining to carry the program because of their expectations of offensive and controversial material. When Stern debuted, it was carried in 79 markets. Within weeks of its debut, however, several stations started dropping Stern, and as of September 1999, 33 markets, including Washington, D.C., Houston, San Diego, and Seattle, have dropped the show, leaving it on the air in only 46 markets.

Just two weeks after Stern's debut, KJTV in Lubbock, Texas, dropped the Stern show, calling it "morally offensive." The general manager for KJTV said, "Simply put, he crossed the line…at some point you have to ask yourself, ‘Does this have any value at all?' We're not trying to be moral gatekeepers of the community but this show is morally offensive and impossible to defend…It was like he was daring people to not want to see it…He pushed it even further than his [E!] cable show and it was just unacceptable." 9

KTVK in Phoenix also dropped Stern after just two weeks, saying, "What played on the radio, and perhaps might even be funny on the radio, once you added video, it took on the feeling of being cruel." 10

Television stations in St. Louis, Portland (Oregon), Fort Myers, and Knoxville, all affiliates of WB and owned by Acme Television, had dropped Stern by late October. In announcing the decision to drop the show, Acme COO and president Doug Gealy said, "We encourage creativity and…we don't believe in censorship, but we felt that for our viewers in these markets, the show had gone over the line." 11 WAIT in Birmingham and KUSI in San Diego had also dropped Stern by late October.

All of this was before the shooting at Columbine High School.

During his morning radio show, just days after the tragedy at Columbine, while the nation was still overwhelmed by shock and grief, Stern callously suggested that the gunmen should have tried to have sex with some of "the good-looking girls" in the school. Referring to the videotape of students running from the school building, he said, "There were some really good-looking girls running out with their hands over their heads. Did [Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold] try to have sex with any of the good-looking girls? They didn't even do that? At least if you're going to kill yourself and kill all the kids, why wouldn't you have some sex? If I was going to kill some people, I'd take them out with sex."

The comment prompted still more television stations to drop his show. KTWB, a WB affiliate in Seattle, dropped the show. Wade Brewer, the station's VP and general manager, commented, "Personally, I was shocked and offended by his remarks. Our sensitivities lie with our viewers and the families and friends of the victims…."1 2 KCNC in Denver, not surprisingly, also dropped the show a short time thereafter.

Advertisers Dump the Stern Show

"Howard's constituency is local advertisers…Most national advertisers tend to avoid controversial programming. We know how to sell advertising with Howard Stern." -- Mel Karmazin

"No, it shouldn't go on and yes, it has no merits…It's not very salable. There's huge advertiser resistance. I don't see any reason for it to continue… I'm not sure how it's viable.'" -- Dick Kurlander, a vice president at Petry TV

Although Stern debuted with the advertising support of numerous major corporations, virtually all have fled from his show, leaving Miller Beer, Glaxo Wellcome's Valtrex (a drug for the treatment of genital herpes), and adult chat lines as the only consistent advertisers.

When the Stern TV program began, the PTC began a campaign of issuing weekly press releases detailing the most offensive content in that week's episode and singling out one of that show's sponsors. Many of the advertisers identified in these press releases denied responsibility for their sponsorship of the program, insisting that their ads were either accidentally placed on the show, or were put there autonomously by an ad buyer without consent from the sponsor.

Nevertheless, 42 percent of the companies featured in the PTC's press releases have since told the PTC that they have given stations specific instructions to not run their ads during Stern. In addition, over half of those sponsors unwilling to issue a written or verbal commitment to not advertise on Stern (or another 30 percent of the total number of sponsors) seem to have voluntarily withdrawn their support and have ceased their advertising on Stern since being contacted by the PTC.

Of the national advertisers singled out by the PTC for sponsoring Stern raunch, 26 percent never advertised on Stern again. Another 26 percent advertised only once again after being identified in a PTC press release (with the second advertisement in nearly every case following the first by one or two weeks). In fact, only a handful of advertisers have continued to sponsor the show; of these, three are movie studios that intermittently advertise movies (like Teaching Mrs. Tingle) aimed at the Stern demographic. The only products that have been consistently hawked on the program are Glaxo Wellcome's drug Valtrex (a treatment for genital herpes), and Miller Beer, a subsidiary of Philip Morris.

Stern Show's Ratings Crash and Burn

"If it were a traditional syndicated show, Stern wouldn't be back next season." -- Richard Huff, Daily News staff writer

Stern's great expectations for the success of his program have proven to be profoundly off the mark. The Howard Stern Radio Show debuted with a respectable if uninspiring 2.7 rating, (compared to SNL's 7.9 in the twenty-seven markets where the two shows went head-to-head).13 The show's ratings dropped 22 percent the following week, while his audience share fell off 17 percent. In the same week, time slot competitor Saturday Night Live had earned a 6.4/17 share, easily trouncing Stern. His ratings have continued to plummet.

By his seventh week on the air, Stern's audience had fallen by 45 percent. By October, Stern Show ratings were down by 48 percent, and by April  they had fallen a dramatic 63 percent from his debut the previous August. In Philadelphia alone, Stern's ratings fell by one half in just one week.14 New York Post writer Adam Buckman notes that when The Howard Stern Radio Show debuted, it was ranked 33rd among all syndicated TV shows. Within eight months, his ranking had fallen to 107th of all syndicated TV shows "right down there with Bill Nye, The Science Guy."15

Daily News staff writer Richard Huff reported that for the week of June 13th, Stern's ratings had fallen 25% from just the previous week, "to a worst-ever 0.9 rating." Said Huff, "If it were a traditional syndicated show, Stern wouldn't be back next season."16

Howard Stern averaged a mere 0.9 rating for the 1998-99 television season. Only during the May sweeps was Stern's show number one in its time slot for its target audience (male viewers, aged 18 to 34) in five top markets, which, combined with the show's relatively inexpensive operating budget, was evidently justification enough for CBS to renew Stern for another year. Said a CBS spokeswoman, "Everybody's thrilled about the show based on the recent May numbers and the performance in all the sweeps."17


"In some strange way I'd like to see the show canceled everywhere. Then I know I'm doing my job."18 -- Howard Stern

The Howard Stern Radio Show, the raunchiest, most explicit program ever to air on broadcast television, has proven a dismal failure, and has forever tarnished CBS's reputation. After the shock value wears off, Americans are turned off by, and will turn off, programs that rely on sheer smut. The history of Stern's show should serve as a cautionary tale for networks and advertisers considering backing the worst of prime time fare during the upcoming season.

Stern's promise to represent the "all-time low" of television standards could not be ignored. The show's assault on propriety has broken down virtually every remaining taboo for broadcast television, opening the floodgates for similar raunch to pollute earlier time slots. The radical alteration of standards presented by his show has already been followed by a decline in standards in earlier timeslots and on other networks, as the new fall lineup indicates.

The networks are seeking (perhaps counterproductively) to stem the flow of their audience to cable by aping cable programming. However, the standards applied to privately purchased cable or satellite programming have always been, and should remain, different than those for programming aired free over the public airwaves.

Through its year-long campaign, the Parents Television Council and its members have helped to show that sheer raunchiness does not make for a winner. In light of the abysmal failure of The Howard Stern Radio Show, the PTC is shifting its focus to coming prime time shows, including a new Stern project to produce an animated comedy called Doomsday for the 2000-01 season. UPN has already ordered thirteen episodes. Stern described the show as "edgy and funny and network acceptable. My only regret is there are no lesbians in the story."

Sponsors That Dumped The Howard Stern Radio Show

America's Best Eyeglasses
Placed the following recording on the company's voice mail in response to petitions from PTC members: "If you are a member of the Parents Television Council, and are calling to comment about America's Best advertising that may have appeared on the Howard Stern show, please know that we are NOT, nor have we ever been, a sponsor of this or any other television programming. Occasionally, our commercials rotate into time slots when this program airs. However, effective immediately, we have instructed our advertising agency to inform all stations NOT to air our commercials during the Howard Stern show. We would appreciate your sharing this decision with other members of the Parents Television Council and with your families and friends. Thank you for your interest in America's Best."

Best Buy
In a letter to the PTC, the media manager for Best Buy stated, "I was concerned to hear that a Best Buy commercial ran in the Howard Stern show. Best Buy has a strict policy against running ads in Howard Stern as well as other programs containing similar content. Upon investigation, we discovered that the station inadvertently ran the spot as a bonus and neglected to check our records which state our policy against advertising in Stern."

A representative has told the PTC that it is against company policy to run ads on Stern.

A representative has told the PTC that the company does not wish to advertise on Stern.

Conseco Direct Life Insurance
A representative has told the PTC that they no longer advertise on Stern.

Dirt Devil
A representative of Dirt Devil has told the PTC that the ad ran by mistake, but would not issue a written statement to the PTC outlining the company's advertising policies regarding Stern.

A representative has said that their ad ran by mistake.

The public relations manager for IHOP issued a statement to the PTC that reads in part, "We are a family oriented company and strive to purchase advertising that reflects that orientation. We have asked all television stations that we conduct business with to ensure that our advertising does not appear during this television show."

Procter & Gamble
Issued a statement to the PTC that reads in part, "We have always worked hard to be a responsible advertiser, placing ads only in programming that we consider appropriate, so news like this is very disturbing… The Howard Stern [Radio] Show does not meet our content guidelines… We will continue to work with national networks as well as local stations to ensure our advertising supports programming that falls within our content guidelines."

A representative has told the PTC that the ad ran by mistake, and that it is against the policy of Saturn Corp. and parent company General Motors to advertise on shows like Stern. The PTC has also been assured that Saturn has contacted television stations and asked them to ensure that their ads do not run during Stern in the future.

Six Flags America
Issued a statement to the PTC that reads in part, "We've instructed [the station] not to drop our spot into any of the openings on that program. It should not appear on The Howard Stern [Radio] Show and we certainly wish that it had never appeared on The Howard Stern Show."

When an another ad subsequently ran (through the local station's error) Six Flags America issued another statement, reiterating their policy toward Stern: "…Six Flags America, through our advertising agency, has instructed the cable television networks not to air our advertisement during The Howard Stern [Radio] Show. The networks received this instruction earlier in the season and have been reminded again recently.

"Obviously, this program does not reflect the type of family entertainment venue we operate and we do not choose to be associated with that type of programming. If our television spot appeared in the Howard Stern Show, be assured that it was an accident and in fact, a mistake on behalf of the network."

A Subway Sandwich Shops representative has informed the PTC that Subway's "Advertising Board of Trustees recently adopted a policy regarding advertising on these types of ‘sensationalistic' shows. Specifically, it highly recommends that Subway advertising not be aired during programs such as The Howard Stern [Radio] Show..."

U.S. Navy
Representatives of the U.S. Navy contacted the PTC shortly after receiving a copy of our press release. Although their ad did run again the following week, they contacted stations, and their ads have not run since. A U.S. Navy representative told the PTC that they were taken by surprise that their ad appeared during Stern, and they took steps to amend the situation immediately.


Sponsors Sticking With Stern (as of September 15, 1999)

Acclaim Entertainment (Makers of the South Park video game)
A representative told the PTC that the game reflected the maturity level of Stern fans.

One representative told the PTC that they would not commit to withdrawing their advertising dollars from Stern, although they have only advertised on Stern twice, October 3 and October 10, 1998. During a subsequent conversation, another Aamco representative said that all advertising decisions are made locally, not on a corporate level.

Bally Total Fitness
A representative told the PTC that the Stern audience represented their target demographic.

Columbia Pictures
A representative told the PTC that the audience for Stern falls within the target demographic for Big Daddy, the movie advertised on Stern's show. Advertising decisions are made on a picture-by-picture basis, and in accordance with MPAA guidelines, they try to reach a target demographic with their advertisements.

Glaxo Wellcome (Makers of Valtrex)
Although they have not advertised as consistently as Miller Beer, advertisements for Valtrex, a drug for the treatment of genital herpes, have aired throughout the run of Stern.

Miller Brewing Co. (Philip Morris Cos.)
Miller Beer has been the most consistent sponsor of Stern, advertising on nearly every episode, and often more than once per episode.

Paramount Pictures (Viacom)
Paramount has run ads for movies targeting young adult audiences throughout the season. A representative has told the PTC that they will not comment on the issue, nor commit to refraining from future advertising on the show.

Parfums de Coeur
Advertised twice (with the second ad running within two weeks of the first), and have not advertised since. A representative has told the PTC, however, that they would not rule out advertising on Stern again in the future, although they have not yet made any decisions about future commitments.

Polygram has not advertised since being targeted by the PTC in a press release. However, a representative has told the PTC that advertising decisions are made on a project-to-project basis, and that they would not reject the possibility of advertising again in the future.

Time-Life Books
Representatives told the PTC they would not commit to withdrawing their advertising dollars from Stern.

Tower Records
Representatives told the PTC they would not commit to withdrawing their advertising dollars from Stern.

Virgin Cola
Representatives have told the PTC that they will not commit to withdrawing their advertising dollars from Stern, and have said that they "like advertising on Stern."


Sponsors of Stern That Would Not Respond

Agri-Bio Tech
Advertised only once in all of last season.

Bristol Myers Squibb
Advertised once after being targeted in a PTC press release.

First ad appeared well into the summer, before the start of the new season.

Disney Has continued to run ads for movies targeting teen audiences (e.g. Teaching Mrs. Tingle) periodically.

Play Inc.
Advertised twice since being targeted by the PTC in a press release. Their most recent ad ran on June 11.

Since being targeted in a May press release, Sony has advertised four additional times on Stern, with the most recent ad running on June 26.

1 Phil Rosenthal, "Stern's Turn: Shock Jock Takes Aim at ‘Saturday Night Live,'" Chicago Sun-Times, August 19, 1998, Pg. 49.

2 Richard Katz, "CBS O&Os sked Stern vs. ‘SNL,'" Daily Variety, April 2, 1998, Pg. 1.

3 For a full listing of stations that have dropped, see www.americandecency.org/stern

4 "CBS Brings Stern to Broadcast TV; Raunchy Radio Act Challenges NBC's ‘Saturday Night Live.'" The Plain Dealer, August 19, 1998, Pg. 1F.

5 "CBS Brings Stern to Broadcast TV…," op. cit.

6 Richard Katz, op. cit.

7 "Stern Shocks at NATPE," Ultimate TV News, February 10, 1999, http://www.ultimatetv.com/news/Features.html?282.

8 Noel Holston, "Steve Allen Says TV Is Stuck on the Wrong Channel," Star Tribune, November 19, 1998, 1E.

9 Chris Newton, "Texas Station First to Give Howard Stern Show the Ax," http://www.foxnews.com/news.wires2.0901/

10 "Stern TV Show Loses Two Affiliates," http:// www.fmqb.com/dirtalert_fits.htm, September 8, 1998.

11 Lisa de Moraes, "Stern Gets Dumped in Five States," Washington Post, October 22, 1998, Pg. B07.

12 "KTWB Television Stops Broadcasting Howard Stern Show." http://flash.oregonlive.com/cgi-bin…NEWS/o 1163_AM_W—SternShow-SchoolShooting, April 30, 1999.

13 David Bauder, "Ratings Getting Weaker for Stern's New TV Show," Seattle Times, October 6, 1998, Pg. F3.

14 Cynthia Littleton, "Stern Ratings Slip in Sophomore Sesh," Daily Variety, September 1, 1998, Pg. 5.

15 Adam Buckman, "Howard's End?" New York Post, April 19, 1999, Pg. 75.

16 Richard Huff, "'Stern Radio' Hits Bottom," Daily News, June 24, 1999, Pg. 113.

17 Ibid.

18"Ratings Getting Weaker for Stern's New TV Show," op. cit.


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