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Watch Out: This Could Get Gory

With studios pledging to change how violent films are marketed on TV, figuring out how might be an ugly process.

October 29, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

When New Line Cinema came out over the summer with its R-rated Jennifer Lopez thriller, "The Cell"--a disturbing journey into a serial killer's psyche with sequences of a man being disemboweled and a woman's corpse being bleached in a vat--the studio was heavily advertising the film on the Fox animated series "The Simpsons," which drew an average of 2.7 million youngsters between the ages of 2 and 17.

When "Hollow Man," Columbia Pictures' gory, R-rated, science-fiction thriller starring Kevin Bacon as an invisible scientist, hit the screens last summer, TV commercials for the film appeared on shows popular with young viewers such as "Star Trek: Voyager," "Boy Meets World," "Digimon: Digital Monsters" and even the Disney movie "The Parent Trap."

And, to hype its sexually graphic, R-rated summer spoof "Scary Movie," which includes scenes in which trick-or-treaters are clubbed with a baseball bat and a woman has her head cut off, Dimension Films bought commercial time on teen shows such as "Malcolm in the Middle," "Felicity," and the family-oriented films "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and "Adventures in Babysitting."

These findings, compiled by Competitive Media Reporting, a New York-based company that monitors advertising in the media, document in detail the extent to which Hollywood studios have used family- and teen-oriented TV shows to market their violent, R-rated films.

They show that in July, for example, Sony ran 318 TV spots for "Hollow Man" on local affiliates showing "The Simpsons." Commercials for the R-rated film also ran during "Good Times," "King of the Hill," "Party of Five," "Step by Step," various "Star Trek" programs and even the family movie "The Amazing Panda Adventure."

Dimension, an arm of Miramax Films, focused its television ads for "Scary Movie" on such adult-oriented prime-time network programs as "Friends" and "The Drew Carey Show," but also ran ads on teen-oriented programs such as "Family Matters," "Freaks and Geeks," and "Malcolm in the Middle," according to CMR.

When New Line mounted its advertising blitz in August for "The Cell," it virtually blanketed the spectrum of hit prime-time programs such as "Friends," "Frasier," "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "Drew Carey." But that only tells part of the story.

New Line also ran 395 spot-TV commercials for "The Cell" on local affiliates showing "The Simpsons" and 138 spot ads on stations airing reruns of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Commercials also ran on such family-oriented programs as "Family Guy," "Full House," "Home Improvement" and "That '70s Show."

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In a report issued in September, the Federal Trade Commission looked at the massive television campaigns waged by Hollywood studios for their R-rated movies and found that of the 35 R-rated films that targeted children under 17, studio media plans for 26 of those films were designed around a target audience including children as young as 12.

The commission found that one of the ways studios reach younger viewers is by purchasing advertising on local stations--a process referred to as "spot-TV buys"--on weekends, and during the "early fringe" and "prime access" hours, such as after school and before prime-time network programming begins at 8 p.m.

As one studio's media plan quoted in the FTC report blatantly stated: "Spot TV was used heavily throughout the campaign to capitalize on its ability to reach teens in early fringe, access and during the weekends." This same plan also noted how spot-TV advertising could be used to evade some network restrictions on advertising R-rated movies on certain shows.

"Prime programs that could not be cleared in network due to the R rating were purchased in spot TV instead," the commission found, offering examples such as "The Simpsons" on Fox and ABC's youth-oriented lineup of shows on Friday nights called "TGIF."

Responding to the problem, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, New Line Cinema, MGM and Miramax Films have decided not to run ads for R-rated films on any programs where 35% or more of the viewers are 17 and younger.

But how much of a difference will that make? The reality is that few prime-time network programs reach this arbitrary plateau. Indeed, some of the most-watched programs on television attract millions of young viewers every night. And even shows aimed at a younger audience rarely reach the 35% threshold. The WB network has cultivated a young viewership through its hip teen shows such as "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Felicity." But none of those three programs would be off-limits to violent, R-rated movie ads given the 35% threshold.

Brad Turell, a spokesman for the WB, notes that during the first week of October, for example, the percentage of viewers 17 and under who watched "Dawson's Creek" was 33%; "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," 29%; and "Felicity," 27%.

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