Edgy TV shows harder to sell

Advertisers covet their young viewers, but sex, profanity scare them away

By Meg James
Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times

August 9, 2004

HOLLYWOOD -- "Nip/Tuck," one of the hottest shows on television, is sewing up an enviable audience of young, free-spending viewers--and scaring off most of corporate America.

The drama on Fox cable channel FX detailing the exploits of two Miami Beach plastic surgeons is loaded with sex, foul language, occasional drug use and wince-inducing scenes of patients going under the knife.

The show has plenty of commercials too. But many mainstream advertisers--Cingular Wireless, Orkin Pest Control, Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., Gateway Computers and Ben & Jerry's ice cream--bailed out after getting an earful from channel surfers and a parent watchdog group.

"It wasn't worth it," Orkin spokeswoman Martha Craft said. Added Cingular spokesman Clay Owen: "It was a mistake. Customers are vocal these days, and we listen."

In the rapidly changing television business, shows like "Nip/Tuck" represent a new dilemma for TV executives and advertisers alike.

News Corp.'s FX and other cable channels are increasingly under pressure to stand out in a crowded, 200-channel TV universe. They must compete with premium-pay channels such as HBO that have built their businesses with such provocative fare as "The Sopranos." The Time Warner Inc. channel doesn't carry commercials and, as a result, doesn't have to worry about offending advertisers.

Advertisers, meanwhile, are trying to navigate the politically charged atmosphere following Janet Jackson's breast-baring stunt at this year's Super Bowl. Advertisers concede that it sometimes takes just a handful of complaints for them to pull tens of thousands of dollars in advertising from a show. They say they must protect their product's image and customer base at all costs.

"These are the shows, like many on HBO, that viewers often rave about and say they want more of," said Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast for the media-buying firm Carat USA. "But when they are on ad-supported television, a roadblock exists because advertisers want to be respectful of viewers and not to offend anyone."

Remaining on the sidelines often means passing up a prime opportunity to reach one of the most coveted groups of consumers: young adults, dubbed "early adapters." These consumers tend to be heavily influenced by marketing campaigns and strive to be on the leading edge of trends, whether that means buying pricey new electronics or seeing a movie on opening night.

When NBC Universal rolled out "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" on its Bravo cable channel last summer, major advertisers were too nervous to buy time. The show's name, Bravo said, was a turnoff to advertisers. When the show took off, they clamored to sign up.

Cleaned-up `Sex and the City'

To be sure, several major advertisers have been drawn to the desirable demographics delivered by shows such as "Nip/Tuck," "Celebrity Poker Showdown" on Bravo and a semi-sanitized "Sex and the City" on Turner Broadcast System.

TBS had to work hard to win over skeptical advertisers for "Sex and the City." Turner Entertainment Group executives began making the rounds seven months before they planned to launch reruns of the steamy series that originated on HBO; they went armed with tapes of the cleaned-up version to combat "knee-jerk reactions."

"Some advertisers who had concerns initially have since jumped on board completely," said David Levy, Turner's president of ad sales.

Those who stayed with "Nip/Tuck" aren't complaining. Playing on Tuesday nights, it frequently has finished in the Top 5 for ad-supported cable shows among young adults. It's averaging 3.3 million viewers a week, growing nearly 10 percent since last summer.

Fox executives say they have sold about 90 percent of the available inventory of national spots for "Nip/Tuck," which ends its second season in October.

"It's not like we're begging for advertisers," said Tony Vinciquerra, president and chief executive of Fox Networks Group. "There is a great demand for the show, and the [advertising rates] have been terrific."

Among the top advertisers are Smirnoff vodka, Jose Cuervo tequila, Guinness beer and Bacardi rum, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. There are also plenty of ads during "Nip/Tuck" for XM Satellite Radio, upcoming movies, America Online and Mitsubishi Motors.

"We fish where the fish are," said Ian Beavis, the automaker's senior vice president of marketing. "We look at every single episode because we want to know what's in there. But these are quality programs with highly engaged viewers."

Under fire from parents group

FX has come under fire before for the content of its shows and has been the target of letter-writing campaigns by the Parents TV Council. The watchdog group, which says it has nearly a million members, is trying to hold networks accountable by targeting their advertisers, who are susceptible to public pressure.

"We're not trying to tell [TV executives] what shows to air, but we think their messages should be more responsible," said Lara Mahaney, director of corporate affairs for the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based group.

But none of that deters FX from its focus on programming that will attract young viewers, including elusive young men.

Last month the Fox channel introduced "Rescue Me," starring comedian Denis Leary, about a New York City firefighter's struggles with alcoholism, divorce and death after the World Trade Center attacks. Despite being peppered with profanity and sexual situations, the show has more than 50 advertisers and continues to be a Top 10 cable show.

Vinciquerra and other FX executives said there has been a noticeable thaw in resistance on the part of some advertisers since it rolled out "The Shield" two years ago. The critically acclaimed drama drove away more than a dozen advertisers that bought time before realizing just how gritty the show about a corrupt Los Angeles police detective would be. But "The Shield," which airs with "viewer discretion" warnings, has a devoted following.

"As long as we continue to deliver the numbers and impressive demographics," said Peter Ligouri, president and chief executive of FX Networks, "advertisers will see that they are getting a fair value, and more will have a desire to jump in."

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