Our popular culture is becoming ever raunchier as the entertainment industry revels in its favorite pastime, envelope-pushing. Nothing, it seems, is too much, too extreme for Hollywood to produce and the public to consume.
But sometimes the armies of vulgarization are forced to retreat. Sometimes that envelope pushes back, the effect of which we saw two weeks ago when the surpassingly foul "Howard Stern Radio Show" -- a television program, its name notwithstanding -- finally was canceled.
Let's go back to April Fools' Day -- how apt! -- 1998, when Stern announced this CBS venture at a New York press conference. The "Radio Show" would not run on the network itself, but rather on CBS-owned affiliate stations, with the network's syndication arm handling distribution to other markets.
It was to air, for the most part, opposite NBC's "Saturday Night Live," which Stern held in contempt. "SNL," he dismissed snidely at the press conference, "should now be called 'Saturday Night Dead' ... It's real boring." Soon, Stern predicted, viewers would desert "SNL" in favor of the "Radio Show," which he promised would contain the same kind of "disgusting stuff" for which his popular morning radio program was infamous. (In fact, it was usually exactly the same stuff, given that the audio of most "Radio Show" content originally aired on the actual radio show.)
He wasn't lying about its disgusting nature. The "Radio Show" debuted that August, and in its first few months it featured, among other delights, a man on all fours with a microphone at his rear end, attempting to set a gas-passing record; a woman blowing out a candle by expelling air from her vagina, then trying and failing to dislodge a ping-pong ball in the same manner; and a "Dating Game"-style contest in which three Stern fans competed for the prize of coitus with a porn star. Even though "SNL" certainly has had its share of tasteless moments, it looked like something you might see on Mother Angelica's network next to the "Radio Show."
As was the case with the super-hyped launch of another small-screen sleazefest, the XFL, the premiere of the "Radio Show" drew a fairly large audience -- and the "Radio Show" suffered the same fate as the XFL once anyone with an IQ exceeding 30 saw the product. Over the next eight months, ratings for Stern's monstrosity fell 63 percent. The program leaked advertisers to the point that slightly more than a year after its debut, its only consistent sponsors were a beer, a drug used to treat genital herpes and adult chat lines.
The stations carrying the "Radio Show" followed suit. When the program began, 79 stations carried it, a number that surely would have increased had ratings stayed strong. But the opposite happened, and within a little over a year, only 46 outlets remained. Some bailed in the first few weeks; at least two, including the one in Denver, dumped it not long after Stern, speaking on his radio program the morning after the Columbine massacre, wondered why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold hadn't forced some "good-looking girls" at the school to have sex with them amidst the mayhem.
The "Radio Show" staggered on for two more years, during which time CBS became part of Viacom, where Stern barely stood out among that giant media conglomerate's other disreputable offerings, such as "WWF Smackdown!" and almost everything on MTV. Even toward the end, "Radio Show" ratings were dropping, to the tune of 15 percent in the program's last year.
Oh, and what of "Saturday Night Live," in Stern's crosshairs way back when? It's still on the air, in the same time slot it's occupied for the past 26 years.
What has Viacom learned from the "Radio Show" debacle? Very possibly, nothing. As Entertainment Weekly reports, now "developing a late-night sitcom for (Viacom-owned syndicator) King World that could eventually air in the (time) slot that the 'Howard Stern Radio Show' is vacating" is none other than ... Howard Stern.
OK, so what (SET ITAL) should (END ITAL) Viacom, and the entertainment industry in general, learn? Primarily, that what might be called extreme sleaze remains at the margins of American culture. As much as prime time's standards have slipped, they'd need to slip a whole lot more before a Stern or Jerry Springer vehicle would be a network programming option between 8 and 11 p.m. Their fare is, and always will be, relegated to out-of-the-way time slots, and, as we've now seen, it may not even survive there.