AS THE SMOKE begins to clear from Howard Stern’s move to Sirius Satellite Radio, his departure from CBS is gradually beginning to resemble a suicide-murder-suicide.The victims, in order, would be Stern’s cultural relevance, the CBS radio division’s health and Sirius’ near-term hopes of turning a profit. Responding to CBS’ lawsuit surrounding his jump to Sirius, Stern has gone on the offensive, beginning with last week’s sit-down opposite Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who got off Dick Cheney’s lap long enough to conduct a two-night interview. Ever the pragmatist, Hannity served up softballs, while Stern complimented Hannity so he could rail uninterrupted against CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. All told, it was a session so filled with mutual stroking that Ang Lee could have directed it. Stern continued the tedious rant Monday on CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman,” even wearing an “I Hate Les Moonves” T-shirt. THE PROBLEM is that Stern prosecutes this latest feud from a less-exalted perch, and what was once playful (if undeniably juvenile) name-calling comes across as a transparent bid for attention — less about Stern’s righteous indignation than his need to remind people he’s still toiling away out there, the richest blue-collar guy in America. The plain truth is that by vacating terrestrial radio, Stern sacrificed the tremendous platform he enjoyed and must shout louder to make any noise. It’s the kind of verbal flatulence his audience could appreciate, provided that millions more of us cared enough to pay $13 a month to hear it. Letterman neatly summarized Stern’s dilemma, comparing his shift to the less-available Sirius to “having a loved one who’s passed away.” For its part, CBS seriously underestimated Stern’s allure in attempting to fill his oversized shoes with the grating Adam Carolla and ill-equipped David Lee Roth. Their programs’ dismal preliminary ratings indicate Stern’s elusive young-male audience quickly fled, leading cynics to believe the lawsuit was calculated to deflect scrutiny away from the CBS stations’ poor Arbitron results. If so, the last PR backfire this memorable came when Dan Quayle equated his political experience to that of John Kennedy. FINALLY, there’s Sirius, which added subscribers by recruiting Stern but is still hemorrhaging money, as is rival XM. Sirius’ losses exceeded $300 million for fourth-quarter 2005, suggesting it has overpaid for programming and must unearth new sources of revenue. Unfortunately, if that requires incorporating more advertising into its channels, the company undermines a major selling point vs. broadcast radio. Barring a reversal of fortune, an XM-Sirius merger might be the only way to achieve the economies of scale necessary to establish a viable business model — a rumor the companies will keep denying, no doubt, until it becomes true. Stern, meanwhile, is close to exhausting whatever sympathy he once engendered by painting himself as an aggrieved underdog, which worked better when directed at a fine-happy arm of government, the FCC, but sounds whiny now. “It would be nice to see things go your way for a change,” Letterman said wryly at the interview’s close, a pinprick whose underlying reality — that Stern isn’t a particularly convincing victim — released a whoosh of air from Stern’s balloon, his self-promotional genius having finally hit the wall. Apparently, it really is hard out there for a pimp. MICKEY MOUSE NEWS: Broadcast newsmagazines traditionally defend their forays into fluff by likening themselves to newspapers, saying they balance hard news and investigative pieces with feature-oriented, back-of-the-book fare. If that’s the case, ABC News is currently missing a front section, unless it’s culled from “Weekly News of the Weird.” Let’s allow recent “Primetime” and “20/20″ topics to speak for themselves: Binge-drinking coeds and Macaulay Culkin (March 10); stolen body parts from corpses, a teenager imprisoned for oral sex and a private eye who exposes infidelity (March 9); polygamy (March 2); Sarah Jessica Parker, behind the scenes of “Dancing With the Stars” and “the truth about whole grains” (Feb. 23). Granted, ABC News has been through a lot, with Peter Jennings’ death and Bob Woodruff’s injury. The division also has done credible work elsewhere, such as its examination of the avian flu threat. By any measure, though, the newsmags have slid so far down-market they’re practically staring up at “Geraldo at Large.” Perhaps ABC should try consuming some of those whole grains. Rumor has it they can help cleanse a polluted system.
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