One comely contestant poured live maggots into her mouth. Another turned herself into a human sundae, smearing ice cream over her naked body. Another sang a dirty little ditty about Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Even by his own sleazy standards, Howard Stern’s pay-per-view special, The Miss Howard Stern New Year’s Eve Pageant, was a shock to the system. Not only did it outrage critics-”The most disgusting two hours in the history of television,” shrieked the New York Post, and they should know-but its over- the-top vulgarity may also have busted plans for a feature film based on Stern’s best-selling autobiography, Private Parts, as well as the possibility of a late-night talk show on the Fox network (EW 200, Dec. 10).
Early numbers indicate that the special, a super-raunchy send-up of traditional beauty contests, was one of the most profitable in cable history, | with some 400,000 households paying $40 each to tune in, for a record entertainment pay-per-view gross of $16 million (Stern could pocket $4 million). But a Stern backlash began in the industry almost instantly. Within days of the broadcast, Fox announced that it was releasing its affiliates to air whatever they wanted in the late-night slot, effectively killing a proposal to give Stern the talk-show spot vacated by Chevy Chase last October. That same week, Paramount Pictures reportedly backed off its $9 million deal to produce Parts for the big screen. Some insiders speculate that the Paramount deal fell through because the studio didn’t put enough up-front cash on the table, and Stern walked. But there are other theories.
”I wouldn’t be surprised if the pay-per-view thing was the first time anyone (at Paramount) had seen Howard,” offers a top Hollywood agent. ”They dealt with him because he was big, because of the numbers, but maybe no one had actually heard his show or watched the tapes. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
”Too many people in powerful positions finally had a chance to look at this guy,” agrees a high-level source at Fox. ”All the junior executives under the heavyweights are big fans of Stern. But I don’t think the heads of the network knew what to make of this guy when they saw him on the air with a woman who eats maggots.”
According to Fox insiders, one heavyweight in particular-network head Rupert Murdoch-found Stern’s New Year’s Eve indiscretions especially revolting and nixed the talk show (earlier, the media mogul had put aside his reservations and agreed to talk TV with Stern, then basking in bestsellerdom). But there’s another reason Murdoch may be wary of the self-proclaimed King of All Media: the Federal Communications Commission’s continuing efforts to shut Stern up. His bosses, Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, already owe $1.2 million in indecency fines, and last month one FCC commissioner ratcheted up pressure by suggesting Infinity might be prevented from buying three additional radio stations for $170 million. Murdoch has had his own headaches with the FCC over cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in New York and Boston.
”It’s not worth worrying about the FCC watching over our shoulder for vulgarity,” says another Fox executive. ”We now have the NFL deal. That makes us more like the other networks. The NFL deal made Stern null and void.”
Stern’s troubles with the FCC, however, may be fading. Some commission observers predict the Infinity sale could go through as early as this week (unless the FCC can make charges stick that the company is unfit as a broadcaster-a highly unlikely possibility). And now that Clinton’s newly appointed chairman of the FCC, Reed Hundt, has taken charge, he is expected to be somewhat more Stern-friendly, although broadcasting experts doubt Stern will ever be an FCC poster boy. ”They may be more judicious in the complaints they choose to pursue,” says Randall Bloomquist of Radio & Records magazine. ”I don’t think it means Stern is off the hook.”
As for Stern’s die-hard fans, they’re eagerly awaiting next year’s New Year’s Eve pay-per-view extravaganza. ”I thought the pageant was classic Howard,” gushes Kevin Renzulli, publisher of New Jersey’s The King of All Media Newsletter. ”Howard gave his fans exactly what he promised. That’s why we love him.”