From Hard Times to Hard Liquor?

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Don't expect "happy hour" to ring out on many basic-cable networks anytime soon.

That seemed to be the consensus of several cable programmers contacted last month, shortly after NBC became the first major broadcast network to lift television's 50-year prohibition on ads for distilled spirits.

Still, some cable programmers suggested that they might be leaning toward bellying up to the bar for alcoholic-beverage dollars that extend beyond makers of beer, wine or wine coolers.

One executive — who would only speak on the condition that neither he nor his networks be identified — said, "There have been discussions [about lifting the ban], but there have been discussions for years."

Another sales executive, who also requested anonymity, said: "This'll open things up. A few of us are sitting around waiting for a few more and thinking, 'If they do it, we'll do it.' "

Sales executives at A&E Television Networks, for instance, confirmed that the programmer will at least reconsider its liquor-ad ban. And Brown-Forman Corp., Allied Domecq Spirits USA and NBC's first liquor advertiser — Guinness-UDV North America — along with their ad agencies, are among those that have contacted AETN and others in hopes of persuading them to follow NBC.

At a time when ad sales are in a slump across the measured-media board, NBC's move was seen as a bid to boost revenues.

Not surprisingly, NBC's play sparked pointed reactions in quarters beyond the network and advertising communities. Peter Cressy, president of The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, hailed the broadcaster's decision on the group's Web site in mid-December as "an important step."

"This is a positive day for the spirits industry and for our adult consumers," he said.

But U.S. Rep Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said last month that he'd introduce legislation effectively overturning NBC's decision. Earlier, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) had urged NBC to reconsider a decision that was "contrary to [broadcasters'] public-interest responsibilities."

The American Medical Association blasted NBC's move as "irresponsible" and "greedy."

Ads from what would amount to a "new" category would provide ad budgets with an incremental boost. But it remains to be seen whether networks can appreciably change the mindsets of liquor marketers, longtime heavy spenders in magazines and on outdoor billboards.

But cable networks — which boast magazine-like targeted audiences and pricing that's seen as more efficient than broadcast — could prove appealing to distilled-beverage marketers, according to some industry observers.

In 2000, liquor marketers poured just under $2.8 million into network cable — $200,000 more than in 1999, according to CMR, a unit of Taylor Nelson Sofres. For the first nine months of this year, however, their network-cable spending jumped to almost $5.6 million, CMR (formerly Competitive Media Reporting) said.

Those expenditures pale in comparison to the nearly $10 million received by spot television and the nearly $15 million garnered by spot radio over that nine-month span, CMR said.

Magazines command the lion's share of liquor ad budgets by far, though they dipped to $195 million for January through last September, from $288.7 million last year and $235 million in 1999, according to CMR. Outdoor and newspapers are the two other major recipients of hard-liquor dollars.

NETWORKS IN DENIAL

When asked last month about their plans, in light of NBC's gambit, most cable programmers hedged their comments.

"We currently do not accept liquor advertising and that policy is not at this time under review," said Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc. spokesman Mark Harrad.

Similarly, Lifetime Television spokeswoman Katherine Urbon said, "Lifetime doesn't take liquor ads, and we don't currently have plans to take them in the future."

ESPN spokeswoman Rosa Gatti said, "We are not taking liquor ads now. We revisit it periodically, but nothing is imminent."

Said Comedy Central senior vice president of ad sales Hank Close: "We're not right now [contemplating a policy change]."

A Discovery Networks U.S. spokeswoman said only, "Discovery currently does not accept liquor ads."

The Peacock Network's policy reversal apparently does not alter the stance of sister cable networks CNBC and MSNBC. An MSNBC spokesman deferred comment last month to NBC, whose spokeswoman, senior vice president of communications Cassie Cantor, at first directed remarks back to the cable network, before saying, "I guess the answer is no [change]."

Until Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. and Hiram Walker & Sons made a limited incursion onto the tube in 1996, the liquor industry had abided by a self-imposed TV ban. Some TV and cable companies also fell off the wagon in 1999.

At the time, Black Entertainment Television seemed the most open to accepting hard-liquor clients. An executive said BET "would consider [liquor advertising] if done responsibly" — a policy it had followed since accepting a Seagram campaign three years earlier.

BET, since acquired by MTV Networks and CBS parent Viacom Inc., could not be reached for an update by press time.E! Entertainment Television, Comedy Central, USA Network and other cable programmers accepted a Hiram Walker buy in 1996 for "Mudslide," a Kahlua-based, coffee-flavored drink.

E!, which refuses hard-liquor ads, last spring and summer ran a "Hit the Hot Spot with Kahlua Sweepstakes," sponsored by Allied Domecq. The network also runs spots after 10 p.m. for Baileys Irish Cream liqueur and Smirnoff Ice.

Close said Comedy has also carried such campaigns for brands that "fall into the same alcohol-content category as beer and wine."

Locally, cable's liquor-ad policy varies by operator. Those that do take such clients on a case-by-case basis, such as AT&T Broadband and Charter Communications Inc., whose executives stressed that liquor is far from a major category.

For its part, NBC has stipulated that liquor spots must feature only actors above age 30 (but no active professional athletes) and must air after 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time within programs that draw audiences at least 85 percent aged 21 or older. Moreover, such buys must be combined with these advertisers' commitment to a four-month responsible-drinking campaign.

Guinness-UDV's campaign for Smirnoff vodka broke on Saturday Night Live
Dec. 15 as the launch point for what was reported to be a more than $2 million buy.

Guinness-UDV also has reportedly run commercials on local TV stations across the country for such brands as Baileys, Jose Cuervo tequila, Malibu rum, Tanqueray gin and Johnnie Walker Black Scotch whisky.

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