Threats no longer have same impact
When Dr. Laura Schlessinger opted to end her radio program amid the furor over inflammatory on-air statements, she cited the “attack on my advertisers and stations” as a cause.Yet despite the increasingly elaborate programming role sponsors play through product placement and tie-ins, it seems especially bogus to blame a show’s demise on the flight of media buyers due to outside pressure. Granted, advertisers have never liked boycott threats and often employ a transparent shell game — temporarily yanking spots till the heat blows over — to avoid controversy. It’s a wonder, frankly, that advocacy groups haven’t caught on to the ruse. If anything, however, advertisers appear destined to represent a less vulnerable pressure point against networks for a variety of reasons. For starters, broadcast networks are finally reaping benefits from retransmission deals with cable operators, which will bring tens of millions of dollars in new revenue their way. This mitigates broadcasters’ sole reliance on advertising as a means of support. Along the same lines, television has become more transactional. Beyond pay services, broadcasters and basic cable derive payments from iTunes downloads, DVD sales and on-demand orders. Plus, racier content can travel well internationally. Yet the single biggest factor in reducing a boycott’s impact might be that many programs can get by in a niche-oriented world without a full complement of traditional big-tent sponsors, which are most apt to shy away from trouble. And while grittier shows do scare away some sponsors (think FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” or AMC’s “Breaking Bad”), there are enough advertisers chasing those particular demographic segments if a core audience embraces them. This much is clear: Programs under fire from interest groups and activists might pay a price, but if they possess an avid following, it won’t force them into retirement. Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck has been operating under an advertiser boycott for a little over a year, since he made comments about President Obama harboring a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” Despite Marketwatch’s early claim that the backlash represents “one of the more effective boycott campaigns in years,” Beck could taunt critics in April by saying, “And yet, through the charitable kindness of this network, we are still here.” Beck and Schlessinger were targeted by the political left, whereas programs on sister News Corp. networks — including FX’s “Nip/Tuck” and Fox’s “Family Guy” — have run afoul of family-values groups on the right. Take “Family Guy,” which the Parents Television Council dubbed “indefensible,” lobbying sponsors to shun the show’s use of “prison rape, incest, sex with a minor, end-of-life issues, and a dog coming on to an infant as comic fodder.” Nevertheless, series creator Seth MacFarlane’s creation profitably endures — tickling young men’s and teens’ funny bones, selling oodles of DVDs and raking in millions for its corporate parent, as does Beck. Oddly, a representative from the Media Research Center, a PTC sibling, inaccurately decried the blowback against Dr. Laura as “censorship,” which specifically refers to government intervention. Moreover, L. Brent Bozell III — who founded both groups — stated a decade ago when Schlessinger faced protests from gay-rights groups, “I don’t fault them for their tactics. It’s perfectly acceptable for an organization to lobby to cancel a program they think is inappropriate.” It’s been nearly 17 years since ABC challenged broadcast standards with the premiere of “NYPD Blue,” which overcame advertiser and affiliate resistance — more than 50 of the latter initially balked at carrying the show — to become a long-running hit. Remarkably, that content is still being litigated, with an appeals court currently weighing whether to uphold a $1.4 million indecency fine levied against the network for a 2003 episode. By contrast, the same network quickly dropped “Nothing Sacred,” a 1997 drama about an inner-city priest. The fatal blow was delivered not by the Catholic League, which crusaded against it, but by “Friends,” which dominated its timeslot. In other words, the show wasn’t worth the headache because nobody was watching in the first place. Such campaigns ultimately provide a balm to those who orchestrate them. Taking action makes people feel good — they stood up on principle and did something. But Dr. Laura didn’t have to flee commercial radio, any more than Howard Stern did. Because here’s the big secret: If boycott efforts, from the left or right, actually drive a program off the air, guess what? It wasn’t going to survive anyway.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more