Tv’s New Hue: True ‘Blue’

One year after Madison Avenue gave thumbs down to lesbian lip locks, bare butts and bondage, advertisers are returning in droves to some of broadcast television’s racier shows.

Ad rates on ABC’s gritty “NYPD Blue” are soaring, while NBC garnered full market rates for its recent TV pic about a lesbian army colonel. In daytime, cash registers are ringing on the most salacious talkshows. Advertiser resistance to adult content has ebbed so low that one expects to see raunchy shock jock Howard Stern – rumored to be talking with CBS – getting a ticker tape parade down Madison Avenue.

Not every company is rushing the stage – General Motors remains fairly conservative – but many mainstream sponsors that took the high ground over the past season got a reality check: Audiences, especially hard-to-reach young males, are watching those racy shows, which are getting harder to avoid on the primetime schedule. Meanwhile, many companies now believe that complaints by far-right religious groups have had little effect on their business.

Mainstream advertisers may beat their chests and stay away from some of the most voyeuristic tabloid series and talkshows. And the news last week of a murder involving two people who had appeared on the syndicated “Jenny Jones” talkshow (see story, page 36) predictably has the industry crying that shows are going too far. But the line has been crossed; advertisers are saying they’re no longer scared.

“Something like the ‘Jenny Jones’ thing will give people pause, but then it will be business as usual,” says Bill Croasdale, president of national broadcast of Western Intl. Media. “The envelope has definitely been pushed. Face it, the mores of the country have changed, and advertisers have begun to recognize it.”

A year ago, “NYPD Blue’s” proclivity for tough language and partial nudity prompted stations covering 20% of the country to drop the show and advertisers to stay away. That meant those with the courage to advertise on the controversial show bought commercials at bargain basement prices. Now “NYPD Blue” is on the air in 99% of the country, and advertisers who want in the hit cop show are paying close to market rates.

Nor is controversy reserved for 10 p.m. shows. It used to be the 8-9 p.m. time period was the domain of wholesome family sitcoms such as “The Cosby Show” and dramas like “Little House on the Prairie.” Now advertisers are falling over each other to pay premiums for spots on adult comedies and dramas that have found an early evening home, such as NBC’s “Mad About You” and Fox’s “Melrose Place.”

8 p.m. not too early

ABC, envious of the success NBC and Fox have had going adult in the family hour, is pursuing a similar strategy and is expected to move “Roseanne” into an 8 p.m. slot next season – something the network wouldn’t have considered a year ago.

“A sitcom like NBC’s ‘Friends’ can go on at a time of the evening that used to be the sacrosanct family hour and talk about the Big O,” says Croasdale, referring to orgasms, “and fetch $300,000 for a 30-second commercial.”

Just how much of a difference can a year make? A year ago, advertisers pulled out of a “Roseanne” episode featuring the star kissing Mariel Hemingway in a gay bar. But last month, advertisers paid full market value for NBC’s telefilm “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,” based on the true story of an Army lesbian. In the film, Glenn Close shared a kiss with her significant other, Judy Davis.

There are still limits

Not that anything goes. Gay characters are now common in primetime, but they don’t get to bed-hop like their straight counterparts. The occasional “asshole” and “bitch” may be muttered on “NYPD Blue,” but stronger slang is still forbidden on advertiser-sponsored TV. Meanwhile, the bare derriere can make it, but forget full-frontal nudity.

At least for now. “You may start seeing the bare female breast in the next five years,” Croasdale predicts.

The next major hurdle for advertisers may be the return of Stern. Two years ago, when the bad boy of radio tried to take his WWOR TV show national, ratings weren’t the problem – the hitch was finding enough national advertisers to support it. But Stern’s current show on E! Entertainment Television – the cable channel’s highest rated show – is drawing market rates for spots.

According to industry sources, if Stern lands on a Big Four network – he’s rumored to be in negotiations with CBS for a latenight Saturday show – advertisers may stay away at first, but eventually will come around.

“It will be just like E!,” says the media chief of a major ad agency. “He will have trouble at first and then if Howard Stern is bringing in the numbers, he’ll bring advertisers who want 18-to 49-year-old men, like every body else does.”

To a large degree, dollar and cents have dulled Madison Avenue’s trigger finger. Advertisers who pull their spots out of shows because they’re queasy over content know it’s going to cost them more to find the audience someplace else, because a bullish economy has dwindled commercial inventory.

“A strong marketplace cures a lot of things,” says Marvin Goldsmith, president of sales and marketing of ABC, who pleaded with the advertising community during last year’s upfront selling season to support “NYPD Blue.”

Advertiser tolerance has increased because many of the adult shows are ratings and critical hits. “It helped us make our case when the Emmys and the People’s Choice awards started rolling in,” says Goldsmith about “NYPD Blue.”

Beyond hot-button shows that are award winners, the current realpolitik demands that advertisers follow the audience. In the daytime talk arena, the ante to see who can be the most salacious, from “Ricki Lake” to “Jerry Springer” to “Richard Bey,” keeps getting raised – as ratings and advertiser dollars pour in. Meanwhile, “Oprah” has gone more upmarket in her approach, and industry insiders are wondering if her reluctance to address themes like “I slept with Mama’s boyfriend even though he’s my brother” was the reason her ratings were down during the February sweeps.

Follow that audience

“Let’s face it, there are simply a lot more shows on – whether you look at primetime, cable or syndication – that once would have made advertiser hit lists,” says Andy Picone, senior VP of the ad agency Warwick, Baker & Fiore.

“But this is what viewers obviously want, and if you’re an advertiser it’s pretty hard to steer clear of it and reach the audience you need to reach.”

And while they are loathe to admit it publicly, there’s a sense both at the networks and in the advertising community that the clout of pressure groups, such as the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, is on the wane. “A year ago, Wildmon was screaming he was going to spend millions of dollars in advertising and boycott everybody who advertised on ‘NYPD Blue’ and every other show he didn’t like,” says a senior network exec. “But he’s vaporized. What effect has he really had?”

There is a contrarian view. Concerned about the sex and violence on TV – and perhaps worried about Congressional braying – mega-advertisers like Procter & Gamble and General Motors are increasingly investing in programming upfront to have more control over the environment where they tout their wares. Phil Guarascio, the GM vice president who oversees hundreds of millions of dollars the auto giant spends on TV advertising, says sponsors are getting more heat from special interest groups than ever before. “When you get 40,000 cards and letters about your sponsorship of something, you listen,” Guarascio says. “And the people protesting don’t care how many Emmys or Peabody Awards the show has won if it goes against their political agenda.”

Refuge in bluechips

Guarascio says part of GM’s concern over finding clean air space has led to increased spending on such bluechip projects as Ken Burns “Baseball” on PBS. In addition, he says there’s a lot more prescreening of series before the automaker lays down its cash.

Still, even Guarascio the contrarian knows where the business is going. “NYPD Blue” may be too blue for GM, but if adult sitcoms that used to be part of the post-9 p.m. turf have crept into the family hour, the auto maker won’t necessarily shy away. “I’m a total realist,” he says. “I know we have to follow a broad-based strategy and go where the audience is.”

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