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In trying to appeal to Savage instincts, MSNBC failed

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 12, 2003

It's not often a critic gets a chance to say, with real satisfaction, "I told you so." It's even rarer when a column may have actually helped right a wrong.

But I got to savor a little of both experiences upon learning that MSNBC had finally decided to can its resident bigot and homophobe, Michael Savage.

For those who missed the fireworks, the third-place cable news network began airing Savage's show in March, just before hostilities started in Iraq. MSNBC placed the caustic, conservative talk-radio host on Saturday in the hinterlands of its viewer-challenged schedule.

Those of us who had heard his radio shtick - he calls certain countries "Turd World Nations" and refers to "homosexual perversion" - knew it wouldn't be long before he brought such hateful speech to his TV home.

To his credit, MSNBC president Erik Sorenson told me before Savage's show hit the air that if such comments surfaced, "they won't happen more than once."

Activists from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation reminded MSNBC of that statement after Savage last Saturday called a gay caller "one of the sodomites" who "should only get AIDS and die, you pig."

MSNBC has maintained that it made its own decision to fire Savage on Monday, surely helped by Savage's lackluster ratings in that time period, and Sorenson hasn't made a recent comment. Still, the Savage incident should offer a few important lessons for the brain trust over there, starting with an important point:

* Lesson No. 1: Not-so-thinly veiled bigotry rarely works, fortunately.

Much as MSNBC tried to cover for Savage, implying that complaints about his radio comments about black criminals, immigrants, gay people, feminists and Third World nations were out-of-date or hysterically oversensitive, it turns out that there's not much to his shtick beyond that stuff anyway. Viewers saw that and stayed away.

* Lesson No. 2: Conservatives can be their own worst enemies.

Fearful as we all may be post-9/11, viewers still haven't warmed to MSNBC's attempts to outconservative the conservatives at Fox News Channel, either through Savage's brief show or former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough's nightly rants against the so-called liberal media and liberal values.

Fox has made ratings gold of playing to viewers' conservative leanings while downplaying the more draconian implications of its philosophies, a tightrope MSNBC hasn't learned to walk.

* Lesson No. 3: It's television, stupid.

There's a reason that most radio stars work in radio.

Broadcasters who excel at TV focus on that talent, drawn by the higher profile and bigger paychecks. Those who spend long years in radio, from Savage to Rush Limbaugh to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, often do so because the charisma that makes them stars in an audio medium doesn't translate to visuals.

Certainly that seemed to be the case with Savage, who simply sat before a prop microphone and spouted his opinions in a manner that was neither engaging nor revolutionary.

The crusader in me wants to believe that Savage failed because most viewers saw through to his hateful, prejudiced core. But he may have failed just because he didn't know how to turn that awful stuff into good television.

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