Spike in a ‘Holding Pattern’ While Stern Mulls Offer

Jun 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Spike TV is in a “holding pattern” awaiting a response from Howard Stern over whether the radio host will take his television show to the Viacom-owned network, sources said. Negotiations have gone into overtime and were highlighted by an announcement last week that E!, the 11-year home of “The Howard Stern Show,” has dropped out of the running.

HBO also showed interest but dropped out early. At least one other unnamed network is also bidding, sources said.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” one Spike TV insider said. “There’s the deadline, and then there’s Howard’s deadline.”

E! announced last week that it will drop the production, but emphasized the network will continue to air its library of 2,000 “Howard Stern Show” reruns for some time to come.

According to a source close to Mr. Stern’s camp, E!’s statement was not only a press release, but a parting shot at Mr. Stern that could affect his future deal.

“The announcement was a ‘[screw] you’ to Howard in two ways,” a source said. “One, it makes it tougher for him to get a better deal by announcing there’s now less competition. Two, [the press release said the network] will continue to air library content. Having the show continue to air on E! dilutes the value of the new show.”

Ted Harbert, president and CEO of E! Networks, said the statement had “nothing to do with that.”

“Once Howard started talking about the crew severance on the air, we wanted to be upfront about [dropping out] and announce our scheduling plans,” he said.

Mr. Stern is represented by the Don Buchwald Agency, which had no comment. A representative of Spike TV also had no comment.

The announcement represented another defection of high-profile talent from the network. A year ago, Joan and Melissa Rivers left to join TV Guide Channel for an $8 million contract.

But unlike Joan Rivers, who hosted the E! series “Fashion Police,” Mr. Stern’s nightly program was E!’s top-rated series among adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research. Though Mr. Stern’s blunt East Coast style has been increasingly viewed as an awkward fit for the Hollywood-centric channel, experts say dropping a top-ranked show is always risky.

“It always hurts a network to lose its top-rated show,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research for Horizon Media. “His target audience is golden. Men 18 to 34 are priceless. [But] Spike TV might be a better environment than E!, considering its core audience.”

Sources said some mainstream advertisers do not want to be on “Howard Stern,” and as a result, ad pricing has generally been below what would be expected from a show with such a large and loyal following. One of the biggest advertisers has been the “Girls Gone Wild” video series, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. Last year, “Howard Stern” garnered only $6,000 for an average 30-second spot.

Mr. Stern will move his radio show in January to the Sirius Satellite Radio, which will allow an uncensored format. Though it is on basic cable, E! holds to broadcast content standards, while Spike TV has shown a willingness to go further in terms of language and graphic elements. Spike could be looser on the use of language and still not include certain words. However, a source for Spike TV said the content restrictions would not differ much from the E! show.

Mr. Harbert said the increased likelihood of profanity was a factor in E!’s decision to drop out. “Right now we have a pixelated program,” he said. “There was the strong possibility with him going to Sirius of having a pixelating and bleeped program-which does raise a concern.”

Sources said Mr. Stern wants to revamp his TV show when he moves to Sirius.

Cable programming consultant Ray Solley said it was a good time for E! to make this move. “It does make sense at this point in E!’s growth to change a major piece of their programming as opposed to try to hang on to it and shoehorn it into their programming as opposed to doing a clean break,” Mr. Solley said.

Now E! is searching for a nightly replacement for the show. “The real decision for us is whether to remain appealing to males in late-night or have our late-night reflect the rest of E!’s schedule,” Mr. Harbert said. “We have 10 years of equity with that male audience. It’s prudent to develop shows that appeal to that audience.”

Media analyst Larry Gerbrandt noted that “It’s always a challenge to replace a known quantity.”

“He’s been a strong performer for them and most television shows fail most of the time,” he said. “On the other hand, E! is trying to follow popular culture and needs to continually reinvent itself.

“It’s been a great run for both sides,” he added.