Advertisers accept graphic talk shows

March 21, 1995|By Bill Carter | Bill Carter,New York Times News Service

When ABC first brought forth its racy police drama "N.Y.P.D. Blue" in September 1993, mainstream advertisers, fearing for their corporate images, headed for cover.

But to the amazement of many in the television industry, companies known for that sort of careful image protection are now regularly sponsoring the most critically reviled programming there is: the daytime talk show.

"To not be in a show like 'N.Y.P.D. Blue' and then to be in these talk shows is just an amazing double standard," said Betsy Frank, executive vice president of Zenith Media, a media services agency in New York.

Indeed, prime-time shows are subjected to a level of scrutiny -- including costly advance screenings by agencies that inform advertisers about questionable content -- that is never applied to the Ricki Lakes and the Jerry Springers.

The screening services say they never see the talk shows in advance, so the only way advertisers know what will be on them is through descriptions sent out by the shows themselves, which are often quite vague. (They could, of course, simply watch the shows on the air if they wanted to see what they're buying.)

Material that network executives say would never be acceptable in prime time, including graphic discussions of sex and highly abusive language, is routine on the daytime shows, which are supported by such prominent family-oriented advertisers as Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and American Home Products.

The advertisers say they try to be conscientious about monitoring the content of the talk shows. But a more important consideration, as Lou Cafiero, the corporate spokesman for American Home Products, put it, is this: "We have to reach our target audience."

The talk-show genre is drawing increased scrutiny because one of them, "The Jenny Jones Show," was accused by authorities in Michigan of helping drive one guest to murder another this month. The police say the accused man, told by producers that he would meet a secret admirer onstage, was humiliated and enraged when the admirer turned out to be a man, and shot him fatally three days later.

"N.Y.P.D. Blue," which introduced brief glimpses of nudity and occasional crude language to prime-time television, was initially considered far too risque for any company concerned about its image.

One season, 26 awards and millions of viewers later, "N.Y.P.D. Blue" is one of the biggest hits on television. But only recently has the show started to make money for its network, ABC, as advertiser resistance has been slowly worn down by the show's critical success.

Still, some television advertisers -- including Procter & Gamble, the biggest of them all -- do not spend a dime on "N.Y.P.D. Blue" even now. Greg Rossiter, a spokesman for P&G, said his company could have "a number of reasons" for this.

"I have not said content is the reason we're not in the show," Mr. Rossiter said.

He said his company did have "specific guidelines" on content that were "among the strictest in the industry." But, he said, "We have to send out a television message for over 300 brands."

P&G regularly advertises its products, which include Bold detergent, Bounce fabric softener and Aleve pain medication, on such shows as "Jenny Jones," "Jerry Springer," "Ricki Lake" and "Montel Williams."

These four exemplify a new trend in daytime talk: surprising guests with revelations, often of a sexual nature, that at times leave them in tears, screaming at each other or otherwise overwrought.

Because these shows are on during the day, many children are in the audience. ("N.Y.P.D. Blue" is broadcast at 10 p.m. on the East and West Coasts, an hour when children are presumed to be in bed.)

According to Nielsen figures, 11 percent of the audience for "Jerry Springer," who had a show last week where four young women discussed the methods they would use on a young man to relieve him of his virginity, was made up of children between the ages of 2 and 17.

On "Jenny Jones," which ran afoul of a mother earlier this year who charged that the show induced her 17-year-old daughter to say she wanted to star in X-rated movies, children make up 13 percent of the audience.

On "Montel Williams," 17 percent of the audience is under 17. "Ricki Lake" has the largest nonadult audience of all, with 22 percent of its viewers between 2 and 17. On a typical "Ricki Lake" show, more than 600,000 children under the age of 12 are tuned in.

Some industry executives question why mainstream advertisers are so eager to support shows with such lurid content. Ms. Frank said research conducted by advertising agencies was divided on whether the benefits of reaching the young, mostly female, audience for these shows outweighed the potential negative reaction to their content.

"Half the research says it will hurt, half says it won't," Ms. Frank said. "But we think it's better to err on the side of assuming that it does hurt."

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