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News Analysis

'Dr. Laura' Was Sunk by More Than Just Protests

April 06, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.

--Carl Denham, as played by Robert Armstrong in "King Kong," 1933

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Don't quit your day job.

--Me,

offering advice to radio's Dr. Laura Schlessinger on the news she was planning a TV show, 1999

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While it's always gratifying to look prescient, no special foresight was required to predict "Dr. Laura," the TV show featuring radio host Laura Schlessinger, would likely fail. Most programs don't survive beyond a single season, and radio personalities--from Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern to more localized talent like Rick Dees, Stephanie Miller, and Mark & Brian--may have an even worse track record in making that transition.

In the post-mortems since Paramount confirmed last week that Schlessinger's talk show had ceased production, however, there has been an odd convergence of agendas, as the host and her critics found a point on which they can finally agree--where their interests nearly coincide.

Gay-rights activists--outraged by Schlessinger's remarks that homosexuality is "deviant" and a "biological error" that prevents "relating normally to the opposite sex"--were quick to claim a share of credit for "Dr. Laura's" cancellation. Groups such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the grass-roots StopDrLaura.com mounted a surprisingly effective campaign, convincing advertisers--more than 170 in all--to shun the series.

As GLAAD executive director Joan Garry put it, "I think Paramount severely underestimated the power of the gay community to mobilize around this."

Schlessinger has also blamed the show's death on those pressure tactics, both in a statement issued to the media and during a "Larry King Live" appearance Monday.

The TV show, she told King, "never even had a chance for the audience to decide" because of "the political correctness that overpowers and overwhelms" public discourse in the U.S.

Schlessinger went on to say the show attracted good ratings playing in coveted afternoon time slots but stations relegated "Dr. Laura" to the wee-morning hours because they couldn't make any money selling ad time.

Or, as Schlessinger said in the statement: "I believe it could have earned a substantial audience in time, but the television advertiser boycott precluded that."

Much of what Schlessinger has said, however, is simply inaccurate. Ratings for "Dr. Laura" were weak from the beginning, indicating those who tune in Schlessinger on radio--by some estimates 18 million people a week--had little interest in seeing her in this new format. The audience declined further in subsequent weeks.

In addition, other programs that experience advertiser resistance--including "Jerry Springer" and "WWF Smackdown!"--manage to survive and attract sponsors, albeit at lower rates, if they deliver a big enough audience. As John Severino, the recently deposed head of CBS' TV station group said before "Dr. Laura" premiered in September, "Once people think it's a good buy, they'll buy it. I don't think any amount of protest is going to scare all the advertisers away."

For Schlessinger, who is also a successful author, the advertiser boycott offers a convenient excuse for failing to conquer a strange new medium. Despite the built-in audience Paramount assumed she would bring to the party, it soon became clear what makes her radio show tick--providing tough talk to anonymous callers, often chiding those who come to her for advice--wouldn't work as well in television.

Paramount's domestic distribution unit, which oversaw the program, reportedly pressed for a kinder, gentler Dr. Laura--one reason Schlessinger hewed to safe topics about helping children, which, while also a focus of her radio show, felt to many critics like "Dr. Laura Lite."

John Aravosis, one of the organizers of StopDrLaura.com, conceded, "It didn't hurt that 'Dr. Laura' did a lousy TV show. In so many ways, she aided her own demise."

That said, Aravosis maintained that Schlessinger was handcuffed in part because of Paramount's concern the show would offend people and fuel the pressure campaign. Schlessinger acknowledged a rift over the show's creative direction by announcing after the program had been on a few weeks that she had "massaged this thing into a form that more fits me. So it's sort of like--but not really--the radio show with pictures."

Yet by that juncture, even a revised version of "Dr. Laura" was already perceived as wounded, in a syndication market where programs face pressure to prove themselves immediately, especially if they occupy high-profile afternoon time slots.

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