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
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
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
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
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
I want you to bend over
while I throw eggs at your 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.
"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
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
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
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
."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
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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]
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
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
Bally Total Fitness
A representative told the PTC that the Stern audience represented their target
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.
Representatives told the PTC they would not commit to withdrawing their advertising
dollars from Stern.
Representatives told the PTC they would not commit to withdrawing their advertising
dollars from Stern.
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
Advertised only once in all of last season.
Bristol Myers Squibb
Advertised once after being targeted in a PTC press
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.
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
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,
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
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
1163_AM_WSternShow-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.
18"Ratings Getting Weaker for Stern's New TV Show," op.