When Jon Nesvig left NBC to join Rupert Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting in 1989 as its chief ad salesman, the "weblet" — as it was then called — had plenty of detractors who didn't believe it could take on the Big Three of ABC, CBS or NBC. Nesvig ran into one, an ad agency executive, in Grand Central Station who looked at him in bewilderment and blurted, "Jon, how could you do that?"
For Nesvig, an inveterate salesman, the decision was easy. He'd been at NBC nearly 15 years. But the No. 1 network had been taken over by General Electric, and he was uneasy about the forced march to GE's infamous executive boot camp in Croton-on-Hudson in New York.
"It seemed like a good idea to go with a start-up," Nesvig said. Indeed, a few years later Nesvig ran into the same agency executive in Grand Central. "How did you know?" he asked this time.
Of course, Nesvig's job is to know what will sell and what won't, but even he couldn't have foreseen that Fox, which was pulling in $50 million annually in advertising revenue 21 years ago, would be raking in more than $3 billion this year.
As president of ad sales for Fox, Nesvig is the one who makes sure there is enough revenue to pay the bills for shows such as "American Idol" and the NFL. When some advertiser who is paying $275,000 for a 30-second spot on "Glee" thinks the show is too risqué, it's Nesvig's phone that rings.
Nesvig, 66, recently announced his plans to retire next month after 43 years in the business. He took time to reflect on his lengthy career, in which he went from selling ads on FM radio stations for $150 to charging $3 million for commercials in February's Super Bowl on Fox.
An edited transcript follows:
What were the early days of selling TV time like?
It was truly the "Mad Men" era in terms of the drinking and smoking. We didn't drink in the office, but we drank at lunch.
You began in advertising at the tail end of the "Mad Men" era. How accurate is the show?
The only thing they seem to have missed is the noise in the media department. When I started, there were mechanical calculators that would go ka-chunk, ka-chunk, and there were phones ringing off the hook. Now, with e-mail, we've gotten this very refined silence.
Ad sales is still famous for the perks.
When I go to football or baseball games I usually have a private bathroom.
How do you convey to the public that the commercials they are trying to avoid also pay for the shows they don't want to miss?
I tell them it's un-American not to watch. That's one of the most difficult things we face. The mantra now is that viewers don't dislike commercials, they dislike inappropriate commercials. I'm not 100% sure of that either.
Why do advertisers stop caring about consumers once they turn 50?
It's not that they don't particularly care about the older people. It is a matter of investment. If you get a customer when they are 18, you might have them for 50 years. If you get them when they are 55, how much longer have you got them?
Is the money that plugging products in shows — product placement — generates worth the risk that viewers will be turned off by it?
It's a tradeoff. Give the viewers credit, they know what's involved here. Ideally, it is done in a way that doesn't annoy the viewer.
There are TV ads for male impotence. When are we going to see some for birth control?
There are pretty severe restrictions on male birth control products. We want birth control [products] to be about birth control and not about anyone's pleasure.
What about advertiser boycotts? Do they work?
They haven't yet. The shows they choose to boycott are the popular ones, and for all the advertisers looking for wholesome family content, there are others looking for racier content. It's our job to provide variety.
Why do the commercials always seem louder than the shows?
The volume leading into the commercial may be lower. Some shows end on an eerie scene, and the contrast seems louder. Certainly some advertisers may try to juice it.
What was the most unusual request you ever had from an advertiser?
Visine would only take a spot in "The Godfather" if it could run after the scene where Moe Greene gets shot in the eye … "Visine — it gets the red out."
What's the best commercial you've ever seen?
"Where's the beef?" for Wendy's resonates.
Did the ad work?
Actually, I used to eat at Wendy's on a fairly regular basis.