CBS: The Bottom Drops Out

Some who sell products generally considered offensive acquire widespread fame and vast wealth in the process. Among the examples: Hugh Hefner and, several rungs down the evolutionary ladder, Larry Flynt. Each had a seedy idea, founded a small business, and wound up with an empire.

Mel Karmazin's case is different. Karmazin will soon become the head man at CBS, a storied enterprise that was around long before he was born. The so-called Tiffany Network, Newsday television critic Marvin Kitman reminds us, "brought you 'M*A*S*H,' 'All in the Family,' 'I Love Lucy,' George Burns and Gracie Allen, Danny Thomas, Dick Van Dyke." But times change.

These days, he notes, "it's bringing you a guy... shaving a girl's crotch." Truth is, Karmazin would not be one of the most powerful men in his industry without this guy shaving crotches: Howard Stern.

Karmazin and Stern have been enriching one another for over a decade. Starting in 1986, Karmazin's Infinity Broadcasting started syndicating Stern's crass New York morning radio program nationally. Currently, it's on almost fifty stations. In early '97, CBS bought Infinity for close to $5 billion. Since then Karmazin has risen from chairman of CBS's radio division, to company president, and now to CEO, effective January 1.

Even though Karmazin has taken on more executive responsibilities, he hasn't neglected his cash cow. Matter of fact, he's expanded the filth. In late August, "The Howard Stern Radio Show" debuted on a dozen CBS-owned television stations and elsewhere in syndication. Despite ratings that began as mediocre and have fallen to lousy, and the growing outrage over its truly mind-boggling level of vulgarity (graphic sexual talk, open-mouth lesbian kissing, and, yes, pubic-hair shaving), it continues to air each Saturday night. Not even the fact that eight stations (with others to come) have summarily dropped this garbage has forced a reconsideration.

Don't expect the situation to change soon. TV Guide quotes a media-buying executive as saying, "Stern knows he can get away with virtually anything [on the air] because he has Mel's support," and a "high-placed CBS source" told the New York Daily News's Mitchell Fink that Stern isn't going anywhere "unless and until Mel leaves the company."

Common sense seems to be in short supply in some circles when discussion turns to Stern and Karmazin. Michael Harrison, editor of the trade publication Talkers, said Stern has "a real sense of caring and values... I think one day he will be... a beloved institution, like Bob Hope or Milton Berle."

Listening to Karmazin and Stern, you'd never know that "The Howard Stern Radio Show" is problematic for anyone. In late October, Karmazin told the New York Times that he has no regrets about launching the program, and in the November 2 issue of Electronic Media, he commented, "We're in the broadcasting business, [which means] putting on programming that appeals to all kinds of people, not just kids. The show is on at 11:30 [p.m.] at its earliest. I believe it's a program for adults... Parents should be able to control their kids at 11:30 at night, and if they [can't], Howard Stern's not the problem, it's something else." The notion that some things ought not to be shown, period, apparently hasn't occurred to him.

Stern, as you might expect, expresses himself less temperately. According to the Daily News, he said during his October 28 and 29 radio broadcasts that he "absolutely will not rethink or alter" the TV show, adding that if more stations don't cancel it, that will be a sign the program is "getting lame." As for advice from some local stations that he should lower the show's raunch level, Stern said, "I told them to shove it. If you don't want it the way it is, don't take it.

"It was worse when Stern held an on-air press conference celebrating his radio program's premiere in Madison, Wis. He callously quipped, "I am happier than a rapist on Viagra," then, asked "Is there a line you wouldn't cross, or a topic you wouldn't breach?" responded, "I have been fined over a million dollars for stepping over that line. No one even knows what the line is anymore. I am sick and tired of safe broadcasting... I will do what I damn well please and I will not be told what to do by anybody. Why should there be a line?"

Is it too late to spank Stern and send him to his room? Karmazin won't even try. He's too busy tending to his new garbage dump on West 52nd St in Manhattan, previously the proud home of William Paley's once-great network, CBS.