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CALENDAR | ON TV

King Stern's legacy: He launched the raunch

January 01, 2003|Brian Lowry

Given the excitement that customarily surrounds year-end awards like Time's annual person of the year, "On TV" begins its own tradition by naming a media person who best represented the state and tone of television in 2002.

So after careful consideration, and only partially influenced by a sugar rush from holiday cookies ... congratulations, Howard Stern.

Yes, we salute the self-proclaimed King of All Media, who is really more a prince of radio and lesser lord in other arenas, from TV (who can forget "Son of the Beach"? Everyone, it turned out) to publishing, to his lone film, "Private Parts," in 1997.

Stern has nevertheless been on the cutting edge in helping define our media culture, leading through his wholehearted embrace of so-called "reality television" and flair for shameless self-promotion. In addition, many staples of his radio show -- doling out plastic surgery, humiliating contestants in the name of entertainment and mainstreaming pornography -- have gradually been embraced across the TV dial.

This analysis, by the way, comes from a frequent Stern listener -- and one who admits as much without the customary disclaimer issued by many of his patrons, who insist they only tune in during National Public Radio pledge breaks.

Recapping the year in television -- and really, the '00s thus far -- reveals a parade of programs with antecedents on Stern's radio show.

Like any successful showman, Stern possesses a certain genius when it comes to tapping into public tastes. This includes his early exposure of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, doubtless helping beget their MTV program and, by extension, E!'s "The Anna Nicole Show," which, at least based on its critical reception, will beget Armageddon.

Stern, whose radio show is distributed by Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting and primarily heard on stations owned by the CBS parent, also jumped early onto the "Survivor" bandwagon -- ousted contestants made the program one of their media pit stops -- as well as other series in that genre, including "Temptation Island," "Fear Factor" and "The Bachelor."

Stern also promotes the merits of plastic surgery and even awards procedures to listeners, usually after putting them through some sort of embarrassing evaluation or contest. This concept found its way to prime time last month with ABC's "Extreme Makeover" -- a special the network sneaked on in December, attracting the kind of ratings that will inevitably spawn sequels.

Much of his radio program, in fact, hinges on subjecting those who participate in some sort of humiliation, from Stern's cast of regulars to those who show up seeking exposure, often literally. Increasingly, unscripted TV shows have begun to recognize this contempt for those who take part in them, from CBS' "Big Brother" to Fox's upcoming "Joe Millionaire," which misled its female contestants by telling them the bachelor they were wooing was a millionaire, not a poor construction worker.

The guiding principle here -- established by Stern, and mimicked by TV networks -- appears to be that anyone who willingly decides to enter the jaws of the media beast is pretty much fair game for ridicule.

Perhaps most famously, an array of models, strippers, porn stars, prostitutes, and lesbianism as male fantasy are primary elements of the Stern diet, and if objectifying women is hardly new, TV's growing acceptance of this approach has surely ripped pages from Stern's playbook.

Consider, for example, the Victoria's Secret lingerie special -- introduced in 2001 and repeated in November -- that has found a place in prime time, or NBC's use of Playboy Playmates to cavort in a Super Bowl edition of "Fear Factor" to lure men away from the game's halftime festivities.

Even prostitution became ready for its close-up in the HBO documentary "Cathouse," which premiered on a night when HBO knew viewership would be high, after the season finale of "The Sopranos."

In a more subtle fashion, Stern has also underscored television's practicality amid fragmented viewing, proving that you can "sell out" without necessarily sacrificing an aura of hipness. So the gangly radio host not only reads commercial copy but has incorporated plugs into the show, bantering with his cohorts about products and programs from Heineken to Showtime's "Soul Food," just as the contestants on "American Idol" drive around in a Ford and conspicuously sip Coca-Cola.

The only aspect of Stern's act that hasn't been widely co-opted is the most distasteful -- namely, the not-so-subtle racism that peppers his show, from "Black Jeopardy" to the jibes directed at sidekick Robin Quivers during his recent "world's meanest listener" contest. Then again, to the extent such material reflects pandering to a sub-lowest-common-denominator segment of the audience, there are clearly plenty of indirect parallels elsewhere in the media.

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