Howard Stern plays nice on ‘America’s Got Talent’
Howard Stern isn't worried about a learning curve when it comes to being a judge on NBC's hit show "America's Got Talent."
"Naked women, singers, jugglers, it's all the same," Stern cracked, referring to his time assessing a carnival of guests on his long-running morning radio show.
On the surface, the hiring of radio's bad boy to replace Piers Morgan as a judge alongside Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel on NBC's modern-day vaudeville show sounds like a typical television stunt aimed at boosting a sagging show.
But "America's Got Talent," which launches its seventh season Monday, is hardly sagging. It is one of the few bright spots on struggling NBC's prime-time schedule, averaging almost 14 million viewers last summer, according to Nielsen. Furthermore, Stern appears serious about the new post.
"This really fit what I built a career on," Stern said. "We've had people come on the radio show for years that are talented or really odd. We've taken weirdos and made them stars."
Indeed, Stern has always had a fondness for finding people with unusual skills and giving them a platform to either shine or humiliate themselves. However, sometimes it seemed he was more interested in amusing himself and his audience than in nurturing talent.
Now he has to be nice, or at least nicer - the sensibilities of a broadcast television audience are far more delicate than for satellite radio. He insists that won't be a problem.
"I think to come in and say now I'll be the harsh judge to fit the stereotype is ridiculous," he said. "Anyone who listens to the radio show knows that there are times you're harsh and there are times you're overly compassionate. It's called being a full human being."
His fellow judges have already seen Stern's kinder and gentler side.
"He gets passionate and emotional about something you never would think Howard Stern would be passionate and emotional about," Mandel said.
"He cries at children and puppies," Osbourne added.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but Stern did show a soft touch during one recent audition after he eliminated a child who had more spirit than skills. The boy was on the verge of bursting into tears after the buzzer went off and the lanky Stern rushed to the stage to comfort him.
Not everyone is buying that Stern can clean up his act.
The Parents Television Council, the advocacy group that often grumbles about the coarsening of American culture, is keeping its eye on the show and asking advertisers to do the same in case Stern crosses the line.
"Trusting him to do the right thing is like trusting North Korea to do the right thing," said PTC President Tim Winters, who said he'll give the show three episodes before deciding whether to call for an advertiser boycott.
Some advertisers may take a wait-and-see approach, but media buyers say there is not a lot of concern about Stern scaring away sponsors.
"Advertisers could be skittish right now just because it's Howard Stern, but two or three weeks into this when they see he can be entertaining in a safe way I think there will be no worries," predicted Andy Donchin, an executive vice president with Carat, whose clients include Home Depot and Outback Steakhouse.
Although the idea of tapping Stern may seem obvious to his fans who know of his love for talent shows - he was on the "American Idol" bandwagon from Season 1 - Paul Telegdy, NBC's president of alternative programming, needed a little persuasion.
"The guy with the big hair who had that movie?" was his first thought, Telegdy said, adding, he feared Stern might be "too edgy and rowdy" for the family-friendly "America's Got Talent." But his top lieutenant, Meredith Ahr, was a Stern listener and pushed him to do some more research. "I was intrigued that the brightest woman I worked with was a Stern fan," he said.
Telegdy was sold after listening to Stern interview Lady Gaga. "This guy is mesmerizing," Telegdy recalled thinking.
Although Stern's agent Don Buchwald told NBC he didn't think his client would be interested, Telegdy persisted and Stern surprised even Buchwald by saying he was game.
But there was a sticking point - he wouldn't consider it unless the show could be done in New York.
"When he realized we were moving the mountain to him rather than him to the mountain I think he was incredibly flattered," Telegdy said.
That was no small gesture. The cost of uprooting the show from Los Angeles to New York is about $6 million, according to a person familiar with the matter. Then there's Stern's payday. Telegdy and Buchwald declined to comment on what Stern is making, but it's been pegged at $15 million this season plus bonuses if ratings go up, this person said.
Stern is known for taking over any stage he occupies - as David Letterman can attest. "America's Got Talent" executive producer Jason Raff acknowledged initially having fears that Stern's over-the-top personality would overwhelm the show.
"That was very concerning," Raff said. So far though Raff said it hasn't been an issue. "He has been good at being gracious. I'm sure there are times when he pulls himself back."
And if that changes?
"Sharon is no wallflower and will tell him to shut up," Raff predicted.
Stern said he has no plans to run roughshod over Osbourne and Mandel, who have been frequent guests on his radio show.
"I'm not looking to blow the thing up and ruin it," Stern said. "I'm a fan of the show, I want to see it grow."
As for the Parents Television Council and his other critics, Stern has a message.
"Tune in, check out if I'm a demon."
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