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Savage gets the boot after on-air anti-gay outburst

MSNBC cancels 'Savage Nation' after host's comments. The channel's decision was "not difficult."

July 08, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Michael Savage's MSNBC talk show was abruptly canceled Monday, following an on-air outburst during Saturday's telecast in which the host asked a caller if he was "a sodomite" before telling him to "get AIDS and die."

Savage's weekly MSNBC show, which premiered in March, marked an attempt by the low-rated cable channel to generate attention that appears to have backfired, with his dismissal representing another setback for the network, a partnership of Microsoft and NBC parent General Electric. His nationally syndicated radio program, "Savage Nation," continues on more than 300 stations.

The San Francisco-based Savage has long been a target of gay and lesbian activists, who had succeeded in dissuading many major advertisers from sponsoring the TV program. By contrast, most radio ads are sold on a local basis and are less susceptible to such protests.

During Saturday's program, which ostensibly dealt with airline security, a caller apparently deviated from the topic to unleash an expletive-laced attack against Savage. Those comments were bleeped out, but Savage's response wasn't.

After telling the caller: "You should only get AIDS and die, you pig" -- which prompted audible "whoas" from the crew -- Savage continued with more insults, concluding with, "Put another sodomite on -- I don't care about these bums, they mean nothing to me."

Representatives for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation immediately contacted MSNBC, which acted quickly to drop Savage's show.

An MSNBC spokesman noted that the channel stated from the outset that it wouldn't tolerate extreme comments on the program, which, given its Saturday-afternoon time slot, was drawing respectable ratings by the channel's standards. According to Nielsen Media Research estimates, Savage was attracting nearly 350,000 viewers each week, less than the 400,000 viewers MSNBC averaged during any given moment for the second quarter, when viewing for all news channels rose due to the Iraqi war. That's just over half of CNN's average audience during that period and less than a third of tune-in for Fox News Channel.

Savage's remarks were "extremely inappropriate," said Jeremy Gaines, MSNBC's vice president of communications. "The decision to cancel the show was not difficult."

Before the program's premiere, Savage had warned gay rights activists that economic pressure tactics wouldn't silence him as they did Dr. Laura Schlessinger, another lightning-rod radio host whose low-rated daytime TV show drew protests and lasted only a short time.

Still, the relative lack of advertising and the modest viewership made dropping the show a simple choice for MSNBC, which is focusing its attention on becoming more competitive with Fox News and CNN through a lineup of prime-time talk shows.

The station failed with the return of talk-TV pioneer Phil Donahue, whose MSNBC show was canceled in February after only seven months on the air.

"It's about time," said Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "These kind of comments have no place on any news network."

The Family Research Council, a Washington lobbying group that promotes family values and opposes GLAAD on issues such as gay marriage, also expressed support for MSNBC's action. Savage's comments were clearly inappropriate and "don't add to the public debate," said Genevieve Wood, the group's vice president of communications.

A call to Savage's radio program, which reaches an estimated 6 million listeners, was not returned by press time. The radio show is heard locally on KRLA-AM (870), which is owned by Christian broadcaster Salem Communications Corp. and features a lineup of conservative commentators. "Savage Nation," also the title of the host's bestselling book, is distributed by Central Point, Ore.-based Talk Radio Network, whose lineup of hosts includes former Congressman Bob Dornan.

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