Cable Nets Won't Belly Up to Booze Ads

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With NBC back on the wagon, it doesn't seem as if cable networks are going to rush to the bar, either.

The Peacock Network recently changed its position on accepting liquor advertising for the second time since last December. But despite the availability of liquor marketers' hefty ad budgets, cable programmers don't appear to eager to step in where NBC ultimately feared to tread.

In December, NBC shelved the broadcast television networks' five-decade-old liquor ban to accept a campaign from Guinness-UDV North America's Smirnoff vodka. The ads — which have thus far been public-service-style, "branded social responsibility" spots — were due to become more hard-sell this month.

Several other distilled-spirits marketers — including Allied Domecq Spirits USA and Brown-Forman Corp. and their ad agencies — had since contacted NBC and other broadcast and cable networks to gauge their interest. However, NBC's broadcast-network rivals opted to hold to the ban.

One cable-network sales executive who requested anonymity had said earlier that some cable programmers were on the fence about whether to follow in NBC's footsteps.

He said he now doubts the networks would find those budgets worthwhile when measured against the potential for the flak NBC had encountered from various quarters.

"The [liquor-ad] issue is not even on the table," said an exec with another cable network. He speculated that NBC may have sworn off booze advertising now that the ad-sales market seems to be recovering.

Smirnoff made an estimated $2 million buy on NBC. The liquor industry spent $2.8 million on network-cable ads in 2000, according to CMR, a unit of Taylor Nelson Sofres.

Most cable programmers — from ESPN and Discovery Networks U.S. to Lifetime Television and the Turner networks — have maintained all along that they had no plans to alter their own stance against accepting liquor ads.

Since the late 1990s, a handful of networks have aired some liquor ads. Black Entertainment Television ran campaigns from Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. in 1996 and Hiram Walker & Sons in 1999. Also since 1999, Walker has run spots for "Mudslide," a Kahlua-based, coffee-flavored drink, on BET, E! Entertainment Television, Comedy Central and USA Network. Last year, E! also ran a "Hit the Hot Spot with Kahlua Sweepstakes" from Allied Domecq.

In its prepared statement announcing its decision, NBC said it was made in response to requests from both houses of Congress. Last December, NBC was blasted as "irresponsible" by the American Medical Association.

The anti-liquor forces indicated they would press their case even further. Mothers Against Drunk Driving said that there still remains "the need for stricter responsibility standards for all alcohol advertising.

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