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Gropes, Profanity, 'Action': Fox Series Pushes the Limits

Television: Fall show has many advertisers wary. Network bets controversy will boost ratings.

July 21, 1999|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In the first minute-and-a-half of Fox's new sitcom "Action," profanity is bleeped out six times. The show's pilot episode has a key plot line that hinges on the size of a man's private parts; at one point, a prostitute puts her hand down the pants of the stranger next to her in a movie theater.

Judging from its first episode, the series about a Hollywood movie producer will make the occasional nude buttocks scenes of ABC's "NYPD Blue"--another show considered to be pushing the envelope of acceptable taste when it first premiered--seem like children's fare.

The broadcast networks were roundly criticized this past season for passing when they were offered the series "The Sopranos," which instead went to pay cable's HBO. The program about a Mafia family includes foul language (not bleeped out) and some mature content; one episode showed a man fantasizing about oral sex with his psychiatrist. The series also garnered outstanding ratings and waves of critical acclaim.

Networks, faced with such intense competition from cable, are constantly looking to keep viewers hooked with edgier fare. But networks have to face one factor that many cable networks don't: advertisers. The question is, how far can they go before advertisers decide they've gone too far?

Paul Schulman, whose Schulman / Advanswers New York agency is a major buyer of network ad time, says not a single client bought commercials in "Action." "Not a one thought it was appropriate," he says.

"If they go too far over the line, there certainly will be a backlash with advertisers," says Tim Spengler, a senior vice president at ad agency Western Initiative Media.

But advertiser reaction also will depend on how the show's provocative content is handled, says Rino Scanzoni, an executive vice president at agency MediaVest. "If something is produced well, handled responsibly and airs in an appropriate time period, it will get more support than something that isn't." "Action" is scheduled for the relatively late hour of 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays.

Fox, whose brand is based on providing provocative fare, has already been dancing with advertisers over its "Family Guy" animated show, which portrays a blue-collar New England family led by a beer-drinking, TV-addicted patriarch, and a baby bent on disposing of his parents. The program recently lost some advertisers after they received letters of complaint from a man representing himself as a leader of concerned viewers; it later turned out he had a personal dispute with the show's producer and wasn't part of a group at all.

Still, his complaints resonated with some advertisers, including one of Schulman's clients. "The average cost for a 30-second ad on a year-round basis is $150,000," Schulman says. If viewers come away with a negative impression of the advertisers, "you're spending an awful lot of money to lose a customer," he says.

That said, Schulman acknowledges that advertisers are sometimes in complicity with the problem. "Advertisers are saying, 'We want different, not a copy of "Ally McBeal," ' and then a show like 'Family Guy' comes on that has a really different humor and some risque lines, and they're bailing."

So what's a network to do? Fox ad sales executives declined to comment. But a Fox spokesman says "Action" wasn't sold at discounted rates and, indeed, got rates comparable to all its other new shows.

Moreover, Fox may be making a calculated bet that the publicity generated by any controversy will serve as a major boost to its shows, and then advertisers will be forced to follow along. Terry Rakolta's boycott of Fox's "Married . . . With Children" helped promote the show; similarly, ABC's "NYPD Blue" benefited from the publicity about advertiser defections and from creator Steven Bochco's promise it would be the first R-rated prime-time show.

"NYPD Blue" started out under a cloud of boycotts from pressure groups; 30 ABC affiliates decided not to air it. Advertisers in year one got the show "for 70 cents on the dollar, and in year two for 80 [cents] to 85 cents," Schulman says. "Then suddenly it was a premium-priced show. It takes awhile for all of the people objecting to become fans."

"If a show achieves incredible ratings success, advertisers are often forced to give it a second chance, even if they passed the first time," says Spengler, noting that some advertisers who at first avoided Jerry Springer's violence-laden talk show and cable's pro wrestling are now lining up to buy ads.

"Three years from now, every sitcom may look like 'Action,' " Schulman quips.

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