Edgy TV shows are a harder sell


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 spokesman Martha Craft said. Added Cingular spokesman Clay Owen: “It was a mistake. Customers are vocal these days, and we listen.” 

In the rapidly changing TV 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

Advertisers 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 TV, 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 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 year, 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 clamoured to sign up. 

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

TBS had to work hard to win over sceptical 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 10pm on Tuesdays, it has frequently 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% since last year. 

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.” 

FX has come under fire before for the content of its shows, and has been the target of letter-writing campaigns by the watchdog Parents TV Council. The 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 California-based group. The group is gearing up for a second campaign against Nip/Tuck

But none of that deters FX from its focus programming that will attract young viewers. 

FX executives said there had 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 at 10pm with “viewer discretion” warnings, has a devoted following. And the network says it's more than satisfied with its commercial load. – LAT-WP  

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