Sexual content scares fewer TV advertisers

December 08, 1992|By New York Times News Service

Fewer advertisers are pulling their commercials from television shows this season because of sexually oriented content, network executives say. And one reason appears to be that the more popular shows can easily replace any skittish advertiser with another willing to take the risk.

Two recent and prominent examples are cited. NBC's comedy "Seinfeld" had nine of its 10 scheduled advertisers drop out of an episode last month that dealt obliquely with the subject of masturbation. And television's most popular weekly show, ABC's Roseanne," saw one advertiser withdraw a commercial from an episode in which a regular character announced she was a lesbian.

But both networks were able to replace the advertisers immediately, losing no revenue. In fact, an ABC spokesman said the network made money on the exchange because the new advertiser, a movie studio eager to publicize a film, paid more for the commercial than the original advertiser had.

Neither network would identify the advertisers who dropped out. But earlier this season, McDonald's and Sears were reported to have dropped out of an episode of the ABC drama "Civil Wars" because of a scene in which the star, Mariel Hemingway, posed nude. In that case, ABC did lose some money because it was able to replace the spots only with less expensive commercials.

In the case of "Seinfeld," Pierson Mapes, president of the NBC network, said: "We didn't lose a dime. There are advertisers lined around the block to get into 'Seinfeld.' "

Indeed, that's the main reason neither "Seinfeld" nor "Roseanne" was fazed by the threat of an advertiser pullout. "Roseanne" brings in more viewers than any other half-hour in television, and "Seinfeld" has an audience made up almost entirely of younger, sophisticated, urban viewers, probably the most desirable group fortelevision advertisers.

lTC But another reason, executives said, was that the shows are respected and not perceived as needing to pander to build audiences. NBC, recognizing the sensitivity of the subject matter, did no special advance publicity for the "Seinfeld"

episode. Still, that episode scored the show's highest rating of the season -- meaning the advertisers who replaced the dropouts received an unexpected bonus.

"I think 'Civil Wars' had more of a problem with that nude episode because it was perceived to be gratuitous," Mr. Mapes said. Of course, another reason was that "Civil Wars" stands far lower in the ratings than the other two shows.

Paul Schulman, a media buyer, said that content in television programming is almost always perceived through the prism of audience ratings and shares. "Sex and violence become love and adventure if a show has a 25 share or higher," he said.

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