The most shocking thing about the ongoing controversy over Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s syndicated radio call-in show isn’t her antigay pronouncements that homosexuals are a ”biological error” and ”sexual deviants.” It isn’t even her reported assertion that gays are ”predatory on young boys” or her comparison of same-sex relationships to adult incest.
No, the most shocking thing is that apparently not a single one of her 18 million daily listeners works for Paramount TV.
In January, when the studio’s TV division unveiled its plans for a Dr. Laura syndicated show, it touched off a storm of protests — from gay-rights groups like the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), from gay celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, even from presidential candidate Bill Bradley (who said that Schlessinger’s views made him ”sick to my stomach”). Paramount’s response — at least privately — was to claim ignorance of Schlessinger’s polarizing views. It was the Sergeant Schultz defense — I know nothing, NOTHING — and it was just about as believable.
”I was told by a couple of Paramount executives that they did not know she was such a hot-button issue for gays,” says David Lee, the gay cocreator of Paramount’s most successful sitcom, Frasier, who diplomatically goes on to forgive the studio. ”I believe them. They are decent people who made a mistake.”
That Schlessinger, 53, is a lightning rod on other issues was nothing new to Paramount, of course. Her conservative, family-values-driven radio show, which she began in 1994, is the most popular self-help talk program in America (Dr. Laura, whose mantra is ”Preach, Teach, and Nag,” was satiating the public’s hunger for daily whippings long before Judge Judy). Her four books have sold more than 3 million copies. And last month, Hasbro released the Dr. Laura Game, allowing ”adults to test their morals, ethics, behavior…at home!”
In other words, Dr. Laura (and the doctorate’s in physiology, not psychology) is a household name, and that has already translated into the promise of big syndication bucks for Viacom-owned Paramount: The studio quickly sold its proposed Dr. Laura TV show in 160 markets, representing 90 percent of the country (which, according to industry estimates, could equal an annual windfall of more than $10 million for Paramount). This despite Schlessinger’s own brushes with scandal: Twenty-four-year-old nude photos surfaced in 1998, producing a wave of bad press. She’s also gotten heat for not practicing what she preaches: Though she’s vehemently opposed to divorce, she’s on her second marriage. And she reportedly hasn’t spoken to her own mother in years.
Schlessinger would not comment for this story, and Paramount continues to hunker down, issuing only a tart statement since the controversy began: ”We are pleased to bring Dr. Laura’s trademark ‘wit, wisdom and no whining’ to a national television audience. We respect and believe in her right to have and express her own point of view, just as we respect the individual opinions of all our talent, employees and producers.”