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W.Va. official issues a Stern warning

April 13, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County Commissioner John Wright said Thursday he will refuse to renew an agreement with cable company GS Communications Inc. if it continues broadcasting Howard Stern's TV show on the E! network.

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"I won't vote to (renew) this cable franchise as long as Howard Stern is on," Wright, a minister, said during Thursday's County Commission meeting. "(His show) is unbelievably gruesome and grotesque. It's filthy."

Commissioner Robert Burkhart said it would be wrong for the commission to censor a particular channel or show.

"You can always turn it off," he said.

"That's a cop-out," Wright replied.

"I will not vote to franchise it and I'll do everything to influence you, gentlemen, including taping some and bringing it in," Wright continued, addressing Burkhart and Commission President D. Wayne Dunham.

Stern, a syndicated radio talk show host known for his raunchy humor, also has a nightly half-hour show on E!

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Stern's TV show, which usually runs at 11 p.m. Sunday through Friday, is essentially a televised version of his radio show.

His shows are often filled with off-color material. His guests range from Hollywood stars to strippers to members of the Ku Klux Klan. Women are frequently asked to take off their clothes.

"We as a commission should block this kind of rot," said Wright, who argued that Stern's show "raises the prurient interest" of the public, a test for obscenity established by the Supreme Court.

"They have a right to watch as long as it's there," Burkhart said. "I didn't even know it's there."

Several individuals and groups nationally have called for Stern to be taken off the air and have organized boycotts.

"I understand being offended by Howard Stern, but these programs have inalienable rights which were fought long and hard for in this country," said Jake Tamse, director of public relations for GS. "Maybe the thing to do is improve public ethics and morals."

Dunham stayed out of the fray, as Wright and Burkhart argued back and forth during the meeting.

Asked about his stance afterward, Dunham said he agreed it would be excessive to invalidate the franchise agreement because of one show. "It's a great big picture and you're talking about one piece," he said.

Wright said after the meeting that there are probably other shows that are similarly offensive to some, but it would take "12 people watching 12 different channels" to find all of them.

Berkeley County is under contract with GS to provide cable service to residents. The five-year contract expires in May 2001, Tamse said.

GS has about 120 franchise agreements and 125,000 subscribers in Berkeley and Jefferson counties in West Virginia, Frederick and Washington counties in Maryland, York and Adams counties in Pennsylvania and Culpeper and Madison counties in Virginia, Tamse said.

There is no other local cable provider available to Berkeley County residents, Tamse said.

Wright said that it doesn't matter, that Berkeley County residents can do without cable and instead buy a satellite dish.

Paul Espinosa, the marketing coordinator for GS, said customers who don't wish to see certain stations can order a special filter through the cable company for $10, plus a $19.95 fee to install it.

Requests have come for different reasons. He said one man asked to have the Disney Channel filtered out of his home.

Many newer television sets are equipped with a V-chip, which allows people to block out programs with certain ratings, often to prevent children from watching them. TV shows are required to be rated for the content of their violence, sexual situations and language.

Espinosa said that channel-blocking is a feature in GS's digital service, but added that GS does not receive many requests to install filters.

In the past, most complaints were about MTV and its music videos, he said.

"Of late, we really don't get that many complaints," Espinosa said.

Cable companies are required to carry the major channels, he added.

Wright said he has heard about an effort by Coral Ridge Ministries TV Radio in Florida to get Stern off the air.

One of the more outspoken groups against Stern has been the American Family Association, which is based in Mississippi and describes itself as "a Christian organization promoting the Biblical ethic of decency in American society with primary emphasis on TV and other media."

An attempt to get comment from E! was unsuccessful Thursday afternoon, but a woman who answered the phone at the network's Los Angeles office said of Wright's ultimatum, "That's terrific. It shows that people are watching E!"

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