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Stern Works Some 'Magic' for Ratings

July 04, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY and PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After ridiculing "The Magic Hour" for weeks, Howard Stern dished off an assist to Earvin "Magic" Johnson on Thursday, as the radio personality's appearance on the late-night talk show more than doubled the program's average rating since its June 8 premiere.

Viewing surged overall in 40 cities monitored by Nielsen Media Research but jumped even higher in big markets such as Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. Locally, the show was seen in roughly 360,000 homes on KTTV-TV Channel 11, improving on its usual results by 132% and exceeding the combined audience for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Late Show With David Letterman."

Stern has been a merciless critic of Johnson on his syndicated morning-drive radio show, heard in Los Angeles on KLSX-FM (97.1). The "shock jock" has taken the former NBA star to task almost daily for everything from his interaction with guests to his diction.

Stern essentially took over the program Thursday, opening with a musical performance punctuated by the flatulence of three band members. He then proceeded to question Johnson, who is HIV-positive, about his fast-paced lifestyle before contracting the disease, about currently engaging in safe sex with his wife, and about firing "the white guy comedian"--a reference to Craig Shoemaker, who was dismissed from the show after an awkward stint as Johnson's sidekick.

Johnson laughed off most of the barbs from Stern, who stayed on the entire hour. At a party sponsored by KLSX at the Key Club on Sunset Boulevard after the taping, one Stern fan was impressed by Johnson's good-natured response but remained unmoved regarding his program.

"I think Magic's been really laid-back about [Stern's criticism], but it's still the worst show on television," said Moses Yu, 24, a student from Pasadena.

Said Stern producer Gary Dell'Abate of Johnson, "He didn't seem to be thrown by anything. He told Howard he'd be on his show, and he seemed to mean it."

The one seemingly uncomfortable moment was apparently manufactured by the show's producers. During the show's Q&A session, a regular feature on the program, a large African American man in the audience sharply chided Stern regarding his comments about Johnson. The man who stood up is an actor named Tiny Lister Jr.

Stern's heavily promoted appearance may provide only a temporary boost for "The Magic Hour," whose long-term outlook appears in doubt despite the insistence of distributor Twentieth Television that the company remains committed to the program.

Producers of "The Magic Hour" clearly expected the event to boost ratings; indeed, they initially sought to convince Stern to come on next Thursday, which would have coincided with the start of the July rating sweeps. Stern, meanwhile, is preparing for his own foray into the late-night arena, a weekly show that will air opposite "Saturday Night Live" on many CBS affiliates starting in August.

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