Stern Is Good—For Nothing
Will fans pay to hear X-rated Howard?
By Brian Lowry -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/17/2004 8:00:00 PM
People who publicly complain about a job are generally the last to leave one. So credit Howard Stern with making good on his threats by agreeing to move his morning circus to Sirius Satellite Radio—the near-equivalent of Oprah Winfrey's shifting from broadcast syndication to Showtime.
The decision marks a coming-of-age for satellite radio and a blow to Viacom's Infinity Radio, however the company might spin it. Yet in a broader sense, Stern's planned migration at the end of next year starkly highlights the schism that still exists between free and pay entertainment, testing anew what consumers will actually part with cash for and what they won't.
Stern, after all, bills himself as the King of All Media. He enjoyed success in publishing (including best-selling books), cable TV (E!'s version of the radio show and FX's canceled Son of the Beach) and, to a lesser degree, movies (the autobiographical Private Parts was a modest box-office draw in 1997).
Still, in every instance, only a fraction of his listening base—estimated at more than 10 million each week—anted up for the product in question, whether it was the middling opening weekend for Private Parts or even his low-rated show on basic cable's E!
As a regular Stern listener (albeit one who usually tunes out the more excretory shtick and occasional race-baiting he uses to indulge the knuckle-draggers who are part of his fan base), I find myself in a similar take-it-or-leave-it category. Yes, I flip to Stern during my morning drive, but not being able to wouldn't cause such a gaping void as to force me to run out and buy satellite radio. As a Los Angeles resident, I still have a few dozen free channels from which to choose.
Sirius has stated that the company needs a million or more additional subscribers to justify its huge cash outlay to land Stern. That basically translates to just one out of 10 Stern miscreants addicted to fart jokes spending money to hear him.
If that seems like a slam dunk, though, history indicates otherwise. Sure, people have grown accustomed to paying for cable TV. But a paltry few buy pay-per-view movies or championship fights with any regularity. Similarly, how many Internet surfers pay to access sites when there's so much information out there free for the taking?
Broadcast networks face declining audience shares, but their top programs still dwarf audiences for anything on pay TV except The Sopranos. Ditto for the lion's share of offerings on basic cable, regardless of how much hype they engender. And while DVD packages and other tie-ins to shows like 24 or American Idol have become a lucrative adjunct to the TV biz, the raw numbers of people who dig into their pockets remain relatively small.
Free TV, of course, has become something of a misnomer. More than 80% of U.S. homes currently receive their "free over-the-air" TV feed via cable or a satellite dish. Moreover, PBS pledge drives and insidious product-placement pitches meant to trump remote controls and TiVo exact their own kind of tolls.
Despite all that, for me and, I suspect, many viewers, there's still some kind of mental block in relation to paying directly for a TV show, a song or an article on the Internet. Perhaps that's why the dazzling new technologies allegedly destined to revolutionize our lives somehow always appear to stay five years away.
Howard Stern commands inordinate loyalty from his target audience. It's an intense devotion that has turned his endorsement of movies, TV shows and even political candidates into a sought-after commodity.
Since the Sirius announcement, there has been no shortage of sycophants assuring him that his minions will make like the rats of Hamelin town and follow wherever he leads.
Maybe, but there's a difference between sitting through the jock's extended ad pods and shelling out $12.95 a month. Heck, even HBO—graced with the most well-oiled marketing machinery around—can convince only a third of homes with cable that the service is must-buy TV (or, to paraphrase its slogan, must-buy "not TV").
Stern, who loves discussing his modest upbringing before he struck the mother lode in radio, certainly knows something about the American dream. Based on media habits, however, he should also know that Americans prize freedom above virtually all else—with the possible exception of getting what they want for free.
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