Imagine a teary-eyed, young “American Idol” hopeful with a heart — if not a voice — for music coming face to face with the toughest criticism a TV talent show has to offer. No, not the seemingly cruel but inarguably spot-on reviews of “Idol’s” resident grump, Simon Cowell. Think crueler, expletive-laced and not so spot-on. Think Howard Stern.
If sources, such as Stern himself, are to be believed, he could make the move from satellite radio to terrestrial TV for the next season of “American Idol.” There’s an open seat, thanks to Cowell’s exit plan, and whether those trembling, supposed singers of the world destined to show up for next year’s auditions are ready for it or not, it could be Stern and own brand of brutal honestly that decides their fates.
That must be a scary thought, at least from the point of view of a wannabe pop star — and maybe even scarier to some longtime “Idol” fans who get a case of the vapors at the mere thought of the acerbic shock jock. Come to think of it, even those of us with a hankering for what would be unparalleled tirades from one of the greats have to wonder if a primetime music panel is where Stern belongs.
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Would this King of All Media mix-ups be a bold move for a show losing its founding father, or the final straw for the family-friendly franchise? Because honestly, it’s one or the other and nothing in between.
The fact is, with Stern’s natural gift for polarizing the masses, his shot at the helm of the top-rated show on television would either surpass Cowell’s tenure or crash and burn like so many ear-splitting renditions of “Unchained Melody.” The best guess at his potential success comes down to a review of the pros and cons of a Stern-led “Idol.”
Look at his résumé
Howard Stern vs. what it takes to tackle “Idol.”
Pro: Filling Simon Cowell’s shoes is one tall order. Prior to Cowell’s American judging debut in 2002, few west of the Atlantic had any idea who the television and music exec was or why they should care. Now the man’s a household name and considered the gold-standard grouch of talent competitions. To keep “Idol” afloat, his replacement needs the same fame, the same appeal, and the same ability to say exactly what he or she is thinking without worrying about hurting anyone’s tender feelings. So Howard Stern it is.
OK, that’s a bit simplistic, but just how many media powerhouses that also double as expert smack-talkers are out there? Stern holds a unique qualification for the soon-to-be-empty seat on-set. No only does he bring the notoriety necessary for the job, he slings finely honed insults with the type of autonomic ease others reserve for breathing and blinking.
In fact, Stern could put Cowell to shame when it comes to dishing the dirt in way that both angers the audience and keeps them tuning in for one more dose of mean. On his radio show, Stern even made a commitment to treat the competition as if it were a cross between “American Idol” and “The Biggest Loser.” If he ever gets the chance, that is.
“I'm going to be frank with these people,” Stern promised before offering an example of his approach. “ ‘You're fat. How many fat pop stars do you see?’ ”
Con: Of course, Cowell’s more than a sniping, snarking panel placeholder. He knows music. He’s an A&R man through and through. Love or hate Cowell’s critical delivery, he’s rarely wrong. And that highlights Stern’s biggest weakness as a potential judge.
He may have mad business skills and he’s clearly qualified as the go-to guy for comedy, radio and adult-themed call-in contests, but as a music industry man? Stern’s disc-spinning glory days barely rank against Randy “Dawg” Jackson’s quintuple-threat status (that’s singer, bassist, producer, A&R suit and manager for those keeping track) and Kara DioGuardi’s almost equally impressive résumé. Stern knows what he likes, but he’s no insider.
Not that it necessarily matters. Ellen DeGeneres took over for choreographer-turned-pop-star-turned-out-of-work-“Idol”-judge Paula Abdul. That puts DeGeneres’ musical credentials a step behind Stern’s, with her main specialty being that she’s a big fan of the show. Thus this con can’t really count Stern out. Heck, as any Stern listener knows, the host’s love of all things “Idol” falls somewhere between all-encompassing interest and unhealthy obsession.
Let the boycotts begin
Howard Stern’s fans vs. fan-nots.
Pro: Here’s a shocker: Some folks say they’ll boycott “American Idol” if Howard Stern fills the vacancy. Commitments to do just that are all over online forums and social networks, so it must be true! “Idol” execs better watch out. Or not.
When considering someone who courts as much controversy as Stern, it’s a safe bet that for every one of those would-be boycotters who actually changes the channel in disgust, loads of newbies and lookie-loos will tune in just to see what all the fuss is about.
Even if Stern drives away busloads of faithful “Idol” fans, his crossover radio legions wouldn’t let him down.
Con: Stern’s prospective co-workers, on the other hand, might just take great joy in letting him down. Recent buzz of an on-the-job boycott poses a much bigger threat for the titan of talk radio.
According to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, “American Idol’s” latest acquisition, the aforementioned DeGeneres, would walk if the Stern talk becomes a reality. And if a subtle naysay from fellow judge DioGuardi is any hint, DeGeneres may not be alone.
None of that matters as far as the man of the hour is concerned. If show executives cave to his $100 million demand, Stern plans to “clean house.” Surely that would be well beyond his powers, but it hasn’t stopped Stern from imagining a Ryan Seacrest-free future.
"Let's get a hot chick to host that thing,” Stern recently told his listeners. “I have better chemistry with hot chicks.”
Won’t someone think of the children?!
Howard Stern vs. righteous indignation and television-loving tots.
Pro: Whether or not Stern has or even wants a real shot at Cowell’s spot is mostly the stuff of speculation. Some say he’s simply enjoying a round of media posturing as his own megabucks contract with Sirius is set to expire at the end of the year. As for Fox allowing the story to continue, why not? Even if the story is false, the attention sure is real. But that stance just won’t work for one group of pious parents.
The Parents Television Council wants an ironclad guarantee that the Fox network won’t allow “one of the most profane, sexually explicit and anti-family performers in the history of the broadcast medium” to appear on “Idol” at all. Good luck with that.
See, a PTC indictment is practically a promo — which makes it a pro for Stern. When the PTC says don’t watch, viewers might as well set their DVRs for some must-see TV. After all, these are the folks who warn against the dangers of “The Family Guy” and “Glee.”
Con: Then again … Ugh. Not to give PTC their due — really, not even a little — but, dang it, the wee ones do watch this show. Yeah, sure, it’s up to parents to figure out if “American Idol” or any other show is appropriate for their little rug rats, blah, blah, blah. That goes without saying. But “Idol” has long been billed as family fare, and for the sake of massive ratings, that won’t change.
Ultimately and unfortunately, keeping the show on the kids’ menu may be the only real barrier between the talk-radio great and what he calls America’s “karaoke contest.” Stern can only soften his act so much without watering down his main appeal — that often potty-mouthed, always smart, tell-it-like-it-is-and-then-some master of media shtick.
Ree Hines is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ReeHines.