Upfront Faces Content Questions


New York -- Indecency standards and issues could have a significant impact on this year’s upfront-advertising-selling season.

Industry executives speaking at a Radio and Television Research Council luncheon here Monday said the controversies stemming from Janet Jackson’s breast-baring at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVIII and the fines levied against radio stations for questionable content would make buyers more discerning about the environment for their commercials during the annual Madison Avenue bazaar.

"Given the political climate and the criticism by large and small advocacy groups, content issues will be a significant part of the negotiation process," said Jack Myers, publisher of industry publication Jack Myers Report. "This climate will force networks to address content issues during presentations in a much larger percentage than before."

Jeff Lucas, president of advertising sales for Universal Television Networks, said USA Network’s original shows wouldn’t spark much controversy, and that could be an advantage in sitting across the negotiating table.

"USA won’t have problems with advertisers because we’re not pushing the content too much with our originals," he said. "There might be with some movies, but they’re one-time events and are treated differently. We’re looking to create ways around advertising unpleasantness."

Bruce Lefkowitz, executive vice president of advertising at Fox Cable Networks Group, said FX had to deal with advertiser fallout during the first season of gritty cop drama The Shield. But as the show and its star, Michael Chiklis, gained acclaim and awards, sponsorship improved during the show’s second season.

He expects the same thing to happen with the upcoming sophomore season of plastic-surgeon series Nip/Tuck.

Lefkowitz also pointed to the fact that the series airs at 10 p.m. and with proper disclaimers. "We’re not marketing these shows to inappropriate audiences," he said, adding that some onus must fall on parents to know what their kids are watching.

Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC, said the standard at his network is to "never violate audience expectations," opining that this was what happened with MTV: Music Television’s production of the Super Bowl halftime show that aired on sister network CBS at 7:30 p.m.

He added that NBC "gets a premium because it presents a comfortable advertising environment. That’s a business judgment."

Dennis McGuire, VP and regional broadcast director at Carat Group, said that despite controversy and fines incurred by Howard Stern’s radio show over the years, "Some clients want to be part of it, and for others, it’s a no-no."

McGuire said his shop spends a lot of time trying to educate clients about "not reacting to the one, two or three letters" they receive from advocacy groups about content objections.

"There are hundreds of thousands of viewers who like show," he added. "I’ve asked clients to send the letters to me. And when I’ve called, many of the groups didn’t get back to me."

All of the panelists concurred that the Internet has given advocacy groups a greater voice and easier means to convey their messages about content displeasure than in the past.