Content has Madison Avenue placing added value on values

Could A&E be going out on a limb by choosing to slot reruns of “The Sopranos” two nights a week at 9 p.m., beginning in January?

The problem is that the so-called safe haven for shows that push the boundaries of content on cable typically starts an hour later, at 10 p.m. And there are no safe havens on the broadcast networks, ever since Janet Jackson flashed her pierced right breast during a musical number at halftime of the Super Bowl in 2004.

That exposed nipple shield emboldened the parents groups and religious orgs to ramp up the pressure, galvanizing the FCC to start cracking down on TV shows denounced by self-styled guardians of moral decency.

The pressure has taken its toll on Madison Avenue. Ad agencies are wracking their brains over what to buy and what to bypass among the flood of polarizing and controversial programs that are cropping up all over the dial.

Consider these developments:

n Not one national advertiser bought time on ABC’s five-hour, $40-million “Path to 9/11″ movie that aired Sept. 10-11. The general consensus among media buyers was that the wounds are still too raw for a detailed look at how the government failed to stop the worst terrorist attack ever mounted on American soil. And if advertisers had signed up, they probably would’ve canceled when leading Democrats screamed bloody murder about fictionalized scenes that they felt made the party look more blameworthy than the Republicans.

n The new season of “Survivor” premiered Sept. 14 without the support of a number of past advertisers, including General Motors and Campbell Soup. These buyers say content had nothing to do with their standoffishness, but this edition of “Survivor: Cook Islands” ignited blasts of criticism from politicians and interest groups upset with the show’s breaking down the four rival teams according to race.

n Big brand advertisers are steering clear of the back-to-back telenovelas of the Fox-owned MyNetworkTV, which kicked off Sept. 5 with two limited-run nightly hours chockfull of sex, violence and beautiful people. No network has ever tried to program soap operas every night in primetime, causing lots of advertisers to look on MyNetworkTV as a foolhardy gamble. Some clients also looked askance at the steamy sex scenes, which are available to many kids every night at 8 on the telenovela “Desire.”

n Ford, Paramount and Sonic restaurants are three advertisers that have bought time on “Sopranos,” which is more than half sold. But dozens of others are sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see what kind of ratings it gets and whether parents groups kick up a fuss.

“I’ve never seen so many big media spenders so nervous before,” says Howard Nass, a partner in Nass-Hitzig Media.

Although advertisers may agonize, Nass says they can walk away from programming that might make viewers angry because “there are so many other places that buyers can put their money,” from Web sites to old reliables like radio and billboards.

Mel Berning, exec VP of ad sales for A&E, says the network sent carefully edited editions of “Sopranos” last winter to all of the major media buyers, convincing some of them that “there won’t be a hue and cry from pressure groups” when the show kicks off in January.

By contrast, “Path to 9/11″ and “Survivor: Cook Islands” can prove to be a nightmare for advertisers, Berning says, “because these shows raise political and racial issues, which can polarize the country so badly that advertisers may be faced with boycotts of their products.”

Still, a few programmers have managed to walk the tightrope. Keeping advertisers happy despite scheduling three of the most boundary-crossing shows on TV — “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me” — has become something of an art for FX. Cabler pulls in robust ad dollars — $271 million in 2006, according to Kagan Research.

Bruce Lefkowitz, exec VP of ad sales for FX Networks, says the shows all run at 10 p.m. and FX goes out of its way to ship episodes of the series to its clients well in advance of their air dates.

“Advertisers will pull out of a series one week because they don’t like the content of that episode,” Lefkowitz says. “But they’ll come back a week later.”

And since all three FX shows are hits, particularly with young adults, he says there are plenty of advertisers waiting in the wings to fill the shoes of squeamish clients who chicken out at the last minute.

MTV and Comedy Central have also had to do a lot of hand-holding of advertisers because, like FX, they’re partial to shows that push the boundaries of content, such as MTV’s “Real World” and Comedy Central’s “South Park.”

But media buyers rarely complain about MTV and Comedy Central because they each deliver hundreds of thousands of adults under 35 every night, a demo that most advertisers will pay through both nostrils to capture.

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