Stern Wallows, CBS Enables
by L. Brent Bozell III
April 7, 1998
If you think entertainment television is now polluted, what with its graphic police dramas and racy sitcoms, just wait until August. That's when pottymouth Howard Stern's Saturday late-night show, which he promises will contain the same sort of "disgusting stuff" for which his radio filthfest is notorious, debuts. It will air on a dozen CBS-owned affiliate stations, which together reach about 30 percent of the national audience, and will be distributed in other markets by the network's syndication arm, Eyemark.
Oh, happy day.
At an April Fool's Day press conference announcing the venture, Stern commented that television broadcast standards are "at an all-time low, and I'm here to represent [that]. It's a miracle; I prayed to God for this... We'll have sex and nudity and lesbians. We'll interview wackos from all walks of life."
If you're unfamiliar with Stern's wit, here are two bons mots from the press conference, which, by the way, was carried live on his radio program and on New York's WCBS-TV. Asked what parental-guidance rating the TV show would receive, he replied, "'V' for vagina." And, indicating a buxom young woman dressed like a prostitute, he said that she "will fellate anyone who gives us a good writeup on the show."
But a preoccupation with sex in its crudest form isn't Stern's only offense. He's also stunningly mean-spirited. When John Silber, former president of Stern's alma mater, Boston University, criticized his radio shtick, Stern fired back in an interview with Playboy: "Is it my fault he lost his f--ing arm? He's got a baby arm. He has a f--ing baby arm because he has a f--ing baby brain." (Silber was born with a right arm that ends at the elbow.)
Sometimes he combines sex and nastiness, as he did last September on the radio. Regarding actress Kim Basinger, he mused, "I just want to tie her to a bed naked... take that piece-of-ass body, put tape over her mouth, and do things to her... Then I break her legs and position them in the back of her head so that she's sitting, and... we let them knit and mend."
Special bile is reserved for Stern's arch-enemy, Don Imus, who commits the mortal sin of hosting a competing morning program. Stern has called Imus the "most despicable human being on the planet, whose lungs I wish would collapse every day of the week so that he'd stay alive and suffer trying to breathe."
A few years ago the Federal Communications Commission, headed at the time by Alfred Sikes, fined Infinity Broadcasting, Stern's employer, for airing his raunch. Stern's response? Of Sikes, who had prostate cancer, he said, "I pray for his death." (In all, Infinity has paid $1.7 million in Stern-related fines.)
Stern fans would argue that such patter is uproarious satire. My response to them: Consult a dictionary. Satire can be edgy, even grotesque, but Stern merely spews; it is his only talent. Sadly, though, spew sells, and CBS couldn't care less how vulgar, how offensive its new host will be. Mel Karmazin, who's in charge of the CBS-owned radio and television stations, said he hoped Stern's following - mostly young and male - will tune in for their man Howard and stay with the Eye for its other programming.
Other programming? The Stern crowd may soon have more garbage to watch. Leslie Moonves, CBS's entertainment boss, recently said he saw no reason why cable's vulgar "South Park" couldn't air on his web as long as it carried the appropriate parental-guidance rating. "I would rather my kids watch ['South Park'] than animals ripping each other apart," Moonves added, alluding to Fox's infamous specials. When the defense of a controversial show is reduced to Pablum-logic like this, you know it's indefensible, period.
Karmazin seemed to acknowledge misgivings about Stern's brand of "comedy," remarking, "I loved 'Ozzie and Harriet,' 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."
So Stern can come on the air and cuss virtually at will. Make raunchy jokes about sex, defecation - you name it. He can insult, in the most graphic, harmful way, anyone, anytime. But I bet there's one thing CBS won't let him do: smoke a cigarette. That, you see, is WRONG.
I'm guessing Jack Benny's monologues never had to be cleared by lawyers, but, to paraphrase Mr. Karmazin, that was a different time. A far better time.