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Where's the Fanfare for 'Dr. Laura'?

Television * Paramount keeps quiet amid uproar as the controversial host prepares for her debut.

September 09, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paramount Television officials have maintained a low profile regarding "Dr. Laura," the TV talk show hosted by radio personality Laura Schlessinger. Indeed, the hope seems to be that those outraged by the show are doing the studio's promotional work for it.

After roughly nine months of protests, which have steadily gained momentum since the National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention in January, Schlessinger's Paramount-produced television program will finally make its debut Monday, airing primarily on CBS-owned or affiliated stations in daytime slots.

Schlessinger, who bills the goal of her radio show as to "preach, teach and nag" on issues of morality, has angered a portion of the audience with comments regarding homosexuality, which, citing her religious beliefs, she has at various times referred to as "deviant" and "a biological error." She has also discussed the viability of so-called reparative therapies designed to lead people away from "acting out" as a homosexual.

Protesters, lead by the group StopDrLaura.com, have waged a campaign to dissuade companies from sponsoring the show, and more than two dozen--including Procter & Gamble, one of the U.S.' largest advertisers--have said they won't associate their products with Schlessinger's program.

Paramount won't release a list of who will advertise within the show but has stated it will run fully sponsored. Those opposing Schlessinger will monitor the episodes, promising economic retribution against anyone advertising within the program.

"They're trying to [position] themselves as 'Any controversy is good controversy,' " said Robin Tyler, an organizer of StopDrLaura.com. "We're going to try to show them that a lot of companies don't feel that way financially."

Additional public protests are scheduled Monday in several cities, including outside the Paramount lot in Hollywood at 10 a.m. A similar event was staged in March and attended by many studio employees, including the producing team responsible for one of Paramount's most lucrative hits, "Frasier."

Senior Paramount officials declined to be interviewed for this story, though sources say many within the studio privately hope "Dr. Laura" fails, providing them an exit from the controversy. Initial ratings may not be the best gauge of its long-term commercial prospects, since the consensus is "Dr. Laura" will benefit at first in terms of people wanting to see what all the fuss is about.

Studio sources say Paramount had some difficulty finding people to staff the show and has at times clashed with the host over its direction; however, Velma Cato, an executive producer on the show along with Schlessinger (who a spokeswoman said was unavailable for comment), denied that to be the case.

"For the most part, we pretty much determine the topics, and they say 'OK,' " Cato said. "There's been very little haggling at all."

Activists who have attended (or, more accurately, infiltrated) tapings of the program, which have been underway for several weeks at a studio in Canoga Park, say Schlessinger has steered clear of subject matter pertaining to gays and lesbians.

The first week of shows are "Teens & Drugs: What to Do?," "When Is an Affair an Affair?," "Are You Your Kid's Parent?," "Dr. Laura's Moral Marathon" and "Lewd Libraries"--another Schlessinger crusade, criticizing what she has characterized as kids' access to pornography through libraries.

"She's staying on very safe topics--'kids and alcohol don't mix,' " said Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Asked Wednesday on Larry King's CNN show whether she would deal with gay issues, Schlessinger said, "If something relevant comes up, that's useful to the community, sure."

Opponents contend Schlessinger is responsible, as Tyler put it, for "contributing to a climate . . . of hatred and bigotry," arguing that Viacom--which owns both Paramount and CBS--wouldn't provide a forum for a personality who espoused perceived anti-black or anti-Jewish rhetoric.

Several organizations have come to Schlessinger's defense--some on 1st Amendment grounds, others because they support her views, among them the Family Research Council, an advocate of reparative therapy. The group has lauded her for "courageously speaking the truth about immoral, unhealthy and dangerous aspects of homosexuality, and the hope afforded by the ex-gay movement."

Schlessinger has acknowledged that the campaign against her has taken a toll, which gay activists point to as proof of their community's financial clout. In July, she placed a "call to action" on her Web site urging fans who "value our relationship as much as I do" to support her sponsors by using their products and services.

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