Howard Stern has not been missed since he took his smutty shtick off the airwaves and onto the unregulated Sirius satellite radio. His super fans -- the brainiacs still playing their VHS tapes of a Stern show called "Butt Bongo Fiesta" -- have made the satellite radio chiefs happy, but Stern has almost vanished as an icon of pop culture. He even scaled back his radio schedule to three days a week, semi-retiring.
So why in the blazes would NBC make the decision to revive his career by bringing him on as a judge of their summer talent show "America's Got Talent," a family show watched by millions of children? They knew exactly what they were buying. They just never stop believing that shock will sell.
NBC isn't exactly "must-see TV" any more. AP television writer David Bauder noted last month that 10 years ago, NBC was scoring 28 million viewers for "ER" and 22 million for "Friends" on Thursdays in April. Now its Thursday lineup has trouble cracking the 3 million mark.
The Parents Television Council sent a warning shot across the bow to advertisers that this family show would probably see a major increase in explicit content. Stern and his fans thought it was absurd to prejudge his performance before it aired -- as if Stern wouldn't be utterly predictable keeping in line with his career.
Take, for example, the recent "Time 100" article he wrote honoring NBC morning host Matt Lauer. He said he and his wife would like a "threesome" with Annette Lauer, and then added, "Hey, I'm Howard Stern, and I need to throw something inappropriate into everything I do." But somehow we shouldn't prejudge Stern.
This new NBC gig allowed the "critics" to bow slavishly toward all the "accomplishments" of the self-anointed "King of all Media." Bill Carter of The New York Times began a splashy Sunday profile by noting how "radio notoriety" pays. "If anyone has a right to feel on top of the world, it's Howard Stern -- especially inside his elegant, cumulus-high apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. ... This is the aerie of a hugely successful man, which certainly describes Mr. Stern."
Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever found only triumph in Stern's late career. "He's richer than he ever dreamed of. And although he still likes to think of himself as a marginalized provocateur, the fact is that the Howard Stern of the 1980s and '90s has been fully validated. He poked and prodded America into frank conversations about gender, sex, bodily functions, politics, culture, art. He triumphed over his real and imagined oppressors." How go your frank conversations about bodily functions?
Oily Stern super fans made fools of themselves on television. On CNN, former "Mork and Mindy" sidekick Jay Thomas mocked the PTC and honored Stern as the sage of our age.
"He is the richest and smartest entertainer of our time. He knows exactly what he's doing. He certainly is not going to do anything like me here on national television. He's not going to do anything untoward," Thomas insisted. "And I think that NBC should send a $1 million dollar contribution to the Parents Council. They have added millions of people to watching 'America's Got Talent.'"
Wrong and wrong. In his first show, Stern had to talk about the size of his sex organ to a male dancer: "I was rooting for you, but all I saw was a guy with a small package. Don't worry; I'm in the same boat! But as a stripper, you can't have man boobs." Stern also mocked a bad singer who when he said his parents had died, Stern asked if they "died of embarrassment."
What matters to the cultural nihilists is one thing only (they say): Ratings. So guess what? After all the hype, it didn't work -- again. "America's Got Talent" scored a 3.6 average rating in the key 18-49 demographic, down significantly from last year's 4.3 for the season premiere.
The promoters of sleaze and sensationalism can't stand criticism, so their first line of defense is to insist that any criticism from "moralists" is only going to boost viewership. If moralists believed that, they would never speak up against anything. So far, the Stern gambit looks like NBC's "biggest loser." And that says something.