Sponsors in Tough Spot

Mainstream advertisers seek the viewers of shows such as 'Nip/Tuck' but the edgy content can spur customer complaints

August 04, 2004|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

"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 Inc. 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 like 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' sensibilities.

Advertisers, meanwhile, are trying to navigate the politically charged atmosphere in the wake of 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 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.... Sometimes these shows are just a little too risque for us."

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 adopters."

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. But when advertisers saw the mild content and the show took off, they clamored to sign up.

Turner Broadcasting System worked 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 at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, it has frequently finished in the Top 10 for ad-supported cable shows among young adults. It's averaging 3.3 million viewers a week, growing nearly 10% since last summer.

Fox executives say they have sold about 90% 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."

The top advertisers are Hollywood movie studios, Smirnoff vodka, Jose Cuervo tequila, Guiness beer and Bacardi rum, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

These companies are attracted to edgy shows and generally don't fret about offending viewers. There also are ads for XM Satellite Radio, America Online and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.

"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."

FX has come under fire before for the content of its shows. When it launched "The Shield," a gritty police drama, in 2002 it became the target of letter-writing campaigns by the Parents TV Council. The group, which says it has nearly a million members, is trying to hold networks accountable by targeting advertisers 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-based group.

Los Angeles Times Articles