Has Howard Stern grown too hot to handle?
Just two days after Mr. Stern proved his financial clout in typical raunchy, rowdy and remarkable fashion with a hugely successful New Year's Eve pay-per-view spectacular, sources on both coasts said Monday that Rupert Murdoch and the Fox network have backed off signing the radio star, best-selling author and movie star wannabe as the new host of its late-night talk show.
And, while Mr. Stern and his corps should have spent Monday basking in the celebration of their celebrity and success, that appears to not entirely have been the case. In fact, sources say it may have been that record-setting New Year's Eve bash -- plus the problems that Mr. Stern's radio employer, Infinity Broadcasting, is enduring with the Federal Communications Commission as a result of objections to his act -- that helped Mr. Murdoch decide to end talks with Mr. Stern and agent Don Buchwald.
That is quite a turnaround from just two weeks ago, when negotiations between Fox and Mr. Stern reportedly heated to an aggressive boil.
While insiders said Mr. Murdoch and his Fox executives were not totally surprised by the nature of Mr. Stern's New Year's Eve pay-per-view special -- his is a unique brand of comedy, with each radio broadcast steeped in the same kind of material that found its way to the TV screen Friday night -- they said the News Corp. chief was not pleased with its content.
At the same time, they noted, Mr. Murdoch is particularly sensitive to the FCC and its opinion of him and his business interests.
While saying he was not aware of a Murdoch-Fox decision to end talks, Mr. Buchwald responded to questions about the Stern-Murdoch talks in a direct manner when he said Mr. Stern "won't work with the faint of heart" or with producers or executives who waffle in their support.
"We want to do a show with people who want to do business with us. We don't want to do business with people who like us on Monday and not on Tuesday," Mr. Buchwald said Monday, adding that Mr. Stern has received nothing but unfailing support from his radio employers and partners despite the heat from Washington.
New York-based Infinity is home base for Mr. Stern's national radio antics, and the FCC refused to sign off on Infinity's acquisition of stations in Los Angeles and Washington.
The commission cited as its reason any number of petitions and objections against the nature of Mr. Stern's daily broadcasts.
The FCC has been particularly supportive of Mr. Murdoch, and insiders say Mr. Stern's mounting trouble with the government does not sit well with the News Corp. chief.
Among other issues, the FCC last year granted a waiver of its duopoly rules to allow him to acquire the New York Post while continuing to operate WNYW-TV in the same market.
Before that, the FCC essentially offered Fox a waiver from its Financial Interest and Syndication Rule that defined a network, allowing News Corp. and Fox to own both a "network" and a studio at the same time. News Corp. owns TV stations in the nation's largest markets, including WNYW in New York, KTTV in Los Angeles and WTTG in Washington.
"We did what we wanted to do, which was show Howard's economic clout," Mr. Buchwald says of the PPV performance. nTC "We didn't go into this for the faint of heart or critics or industry types. We went into this for Howard's fans, and they loved it."
While official numbers are not yet in, Mr. Stern's PPV event -- a bawdy 110-minute affair that featured just about every trick and trademark for which Mr. Stern is famous -- appears to be on a collision course with history.
As cable operators around the country tallied their orders, early returns for the Main Events/Monitor-promoted and distributed ode to sex and self-indulgence signaled that as many as 400,000 homes bought the epitome of midnight madness.
With an estimated 20 million homes capable of ordering the event, that translates into a powerful 2 percent buy rate, which would be better than all but major boxing events. With the special priced about $40, such a mammoth outpouring of support would generate as much as $16 million in gross sales.
For Friday's PPV event, sources indicate a $16 million gross would likely put $7.2 million in the promoter's pot, with the balance going to cable operators and network distributors such as Viewer's Choice and Request.
Of that money, it is expected that Main Events/Monitor and Mr. Stern's organization would each take $1 million off the top to recoup direct, out-of-pocket expenses associated with creating, staging, producing, marketing and distributing the show, leaving about $5.2 million.
Infinity would get 30 percent of that figure, or $1.56 million, in payment for a partnership position that was secured against Mr. Stern's almost unending on-air promotion for the event during his radio programs, with Main Events and Monitor each receiving an estimated $1.25 million. That would leave Mr. Stern with a profit of more than $1.1 million.
Fox had no comment on the reports. Infinity chairman Mel Karmazin did not return telephone calls and Mr. Stern was traveling and could not be reached.