Stern Is Good—For Nothing

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
) 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

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.