Can a TV show be a ratings hit and still lose money?
That's what's happening with "NYPD Blue," according to Robert Iger, the president of ABC.
Iger told critics yesterday that "NYPD Blue," one of the few new shows to score a hit in the ratings, is losing money for ABC because major advertisers don't want to be associated with its controversial subject matter.
"Clearly, the revenue we're bringing in for that program is less than the revenue you'd traditionally bring in with a show that earned those kinds of ratings and demographics. . . . And, obviously, the reason is content," Iger said.
He said the network is seeing "some signs" of growth in advertising revenue, but that the show "is still losing money."
Iger declined to discuss specific dollar amounts, but said the losses are large enough that ABC is not looking to make another show like "NYPD Blue" any time soon.
"I don't mean to be evasive, But I will say just one more thing about it," Iger said when pressed for specifics.
"When we decided to put 'NYPD Blue' on the air, we didn't get together and say we're going to drastically change our standards.
"What we said was we had a strong belief there was room in network television for an adult-oriented drama, provided it was high in quality . . . and there were no surprises for the audience, we clearly labeled it and told the audience what it was.
"And we have not second-guessed that decision. But we are not sitting around saying, 'How can we get the next one?' I'm not sure there ever will be a next one."
Iger's acknowledgment of losses on the show came as a surprise, since "NYPD Blue" is the second-highest rated new series of the year, behind "Phenom," which has the benefit of "Home Improvement" as a lead-in.
Furthermore, "NYPD Blue" ranks 16th overall out of all 102 prime-time shows and 10th in the demographic advertisers want the most, adults 18 to 49 years old.
The show opened the season facing such intense controversy over its level of violence, harsh language, and nudity that about 50 ABC affiliates refused to air the pilot. Many of those stations are now carrying the series.
WJZ (Channel 13), ABC's Baltimore affiliate, decided to carry the show only after screening it for groups of parents, educators and religIous leaders in the area.
The other news from Iger yesterday was that ABC is moving away from its posture last summer of acknowledging TV violence can contribute to anti-social behavior. Instead of contrition or a promise to do better, Iger mainly had tough talk for critics of network violence, such Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.
"I don't think, when it comes to violence, the networks have anything to be guilty about," Iger said.
He said he'd support the networks collectively commissioning their own study to examine TV violence, but nothing tougher than that.
He also said if he had it to do over again, he'd still air "Murder in the Heartland," the made-for-TV movie that came to symbolize gratuitous network violence at hearings in Washington last May.
" 'Murder in the Heartland' was high-quality television," Iger said.
"So far, the focus of the discussion [on TV violence] has been so negative and unproductive, so off-base, particularly in Washington. . . . There's something seductive about censoring us, because we're so omnipotent and so omnipresent."