NEW YORK — Nervous about appearing insensitive to the victims of last week’s terrorist attacks, advertisers are being extra-cautious about where their TV ads are seen.
The latest example: Sears and Federal Express pulled their ads from “Politically Incorrect” on Wednesday, saying show host Bill Maher was too politically incorrect when he called previous U.S. military attacks cowardly.
The controversy highlights advertisers’ fears about appearing on programs that, in any way, seem inappropriate, given the current political climate.
Already, networks are finding that many advertisers are skittish about appearing in any news programming whatsoever, preferring to spend their money on entertainment series.
“For many advertisers, it’s still too delicate for them to be there,” one senior network exec said.
That’s resulted in primetime newsmags such as “Dateline NBC” and “48 Hours” airing a larger-than-usual number of network promos to fill the gap left by paid advertisers.
Advertisers in categories such as travel and financial services have pulled way back on media spending, partially because they feel their financial prospects aren’t strong at the moment. They also don’t want to appear overly opportunistic.
Unsure when news programming will preempt regular skeds, advertisers are having a tough time planning media campaigns. With a possible war hovering, they’ll also likely put product launches on hold.
Programs that deal with touchy subject matter will likely be hardest hit by the new sensitivity to content. Anything that deals with espionage, counter-terrorism or violent themes will likely be difficult sells.
“There are three shows that are particularly close to the topic — Fox’s ’24,’ CBS’ ‘The Agency’ and ABC’s ‘Alias,’ ” one media buyer said. “We’re going back to all our clients and revisiting these shows in particular. The three shows, which highlight the CIA and counter-terrorist activities, had been sought out by advertisers as some of the best of the new crop of fall programming.
In contrast to shows with sensitive subject matter, programs such as ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” could appeal to advertisers looking for noncontroversial fare.
“The country will probably gravitate to simple, fun, lighthearted things in their media choices,” one ad agency exec said.
Sears, the No. 4 U.S. retailer, said it received dozens of complaints about Maher’s comments on ABC’s latenight talkshow.
“Sears took this action after reviewing a transcript of the Sept. 17 conversation among Maher and his guests in which the U.S. military was described as cowardly,” the company said in a statement.
Referring to past U.S. military campaigns during Monday’s show, Maher said that “we have been cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly.” In response to President Bush’s statement that the suicide bombers were “cowards,” Maher said “staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
On Tuesday, Maher responded to viewer concerns by saying: “I received a lot of messages today about the show we did last night, most of them positive. But to those who say that there was insufficient grieving, I understand. I hear you. I just have never been good at grieving in public. … I also feel a responsibility for this show to be what it has always been — a place where people can come and express their ideas openly, in a way they can’t in many other places.”
Maher clarified his statement on Wednesday, adding that, “In no way was I intending to say, nor have I ever thought, that the men and women who defend our nation in uniform are anything but courageous and valiant, and I offer my apologies to anyone who took it wrong.”
Ironically, one of Maher’s central themes on Monday’s show was the absurdity of political correctness in difficult times.
Cost to nets
Meanwhile, the entertainment business is still assessing the financial cost of the terrorist attacks.
The NFL said Wednesday it might compensate broadcasters for lost advertising revenue if some of the wild-card playoff games are canceled. That could cost as much as $80 million.
ABC, CBS and Fox were scheduled to broadcast the games Jan. 5-6. Now they might not be played at all because of scheduling conflicts following the NFL’s decision to cancel last weekend’s games because of the terrorist attacks.
The nets are scheduled to pay a combined $1.5 billion for NFL broadcast rights this season as part of an eight-year, $17.6 billion contract.
(Josef Adalian in Los Angeles and Bloomberg contributed to this report.)