Fourth Estate: Faith, Hope And Clarity

Touched by an angel could use some heavenly intervention. Sure, the series has been blessed with ratings and critical acclaim, but the devil-may-care attitude of advertisers toward the Sunday night hit has vexed CBS executives and underscores media buyers’ urban bias with programming.
When CBS unveiled Touched by an Angel in 1993, executives had faith the series would connect with viewers. All the indicators were there. A double whammy–the end of the millennium, coupled with baby boomers dealing with their own mortality–sparked a buying spree of spiritually related products. The Celestine Prophesy miraculously made it onto the bestseller lists, as did other new age themed books, while a keen interest in the supernatural and mysticism turned The X-Files into a megahit for Fox.
Even mainstream TV shows that had avoided religious themes eagerly embraced spiritual plot lines. CBS, desperate for a hit, cashed in on the craze. Did piety pay off?
Touched by an Angel, a sensitively written tale about angels coming to earth to counsel troubled souls, is now the No. 2 drama behind NBC’s powerhouse ER. Yet the show initially debuted against Aaron Spelling’s Models, Inc. A classic battle–virtue vs. sin–emerged.
Touched by an Angel was given a projected 9 share, the lowest Madison Avenue had ever awarded a CBS show, claims CBS vice president David Poltrack. “We knew we’d beat Models,” says Poltrack. “And we also knew we wouldn’t accept that share. We decided to use the time period for makegoods. We held to our guns and didn’t sell out.”
Not only did Touched by an Angel beat Models, Inc., but it slammed every show that dared compete with it. It almost made ad buyers believe in miracles. Says Ed. Weinberger, the executive producer of Good News, the new UPN comedy set in an inner-city L.A. parish, “I don’t know whether they’re smelling the millennium or smelling a buck.”
Yet, as ad buys go, Touched by an Angel is treated shabbily. True, its ad rates have increased from $50,000 for a 30-second spot to $100,000, but CBS feels it deserves even more for its uplifting saga.
That lesson wasn’t lost on the other networks. The Jewish study of Kabbalah was explored on The X-Files, while Ally McBeal debated religion with a rabbi she dated. ER’s Doug Ross crossed himself in church, and Homicide’s Frank Pembleton discussed Jesuitical ideals with his fellow detectives. And that’s just episodic TV.
There are also many religiously themed shows to watch, including Touched by an Angel spinoff Promised Land, about a struggling family who crosses the country in a trailer helping others find faith. ABC’s Soul Man stars Dan Aykroyd as a widowed minister who likes blues music and says Jesus teaches, “I’ll be baaack!” WB’s Seventh Heaven stars Stephen Collins as a likable minister who deals with such real-life issues as drugs.
All hope to cash in on the holiday spending spree. Last December, total ad spending for network TV, according to Competitive Media Reporting, was nearly $1.4 billion. Of course, when it comes to Seinfeld’s muscle, these shows turn the other cheek. The Neilsen TV Index Ranking Report for Sept. 22-Dec. 4 ranked Soul Man at No. 24 with a 16 share, Nothing Sacred was No. 94 with an 8 share, Seventh Heaven was No. 106 with a 6 share and Good News weighed in at No. 116 with a 5 share. These shows may not register big numbers, but they are answering a need. The networks have faith these shows will find an audience–and a lucrative ad base. In fact, a recent TV Guide poll revealed that 61 percent of respondents want more references to God in prime time. Will ad buyers listen?
After all, no “religious” show has ever preached as well to the Nielsen congregation as Touched by an Angel–and ad buyers admit they missed the mark on it.
“We all laughed at the presentation of that one,” says Tim Spengler, a media buyer for Western International Media. “It did not seem compelling; it seemed corny. But it did have heartland appeal, and we shouldn’t underestimate that. It’s human nature to be influenced by things we like.”
This sentiment makes the unflappable Poltrack seethe with rage. “It’s this whole mystique of what Madison Avenue thinks should be hot,” he says. “If a show isn’t being talked about in singles’ bars in Manhattan or Marina del Ray, it doesn’t register with them. Yet a real hot show that is being talked about by millions of people in PTA meetings and company cafeterias doesn’t get the respect it deserves.”
Ad buyers insist they aren’t being sacrilegious; they’re responding to demographics, not households. “Angel is a safe environment for ads, and it dominates its time period,” concedes Paul Schulman of the Paul Schulman Co. “But it does not get the premium pricing for a top 10 show because it doesn’t deliver the 18-49 demographic we’re looking for. I can’t see The Gap advertising in the show–maybe Baby Gap for the grandmothers.”
Adds Spengler, “We like the show, but we’re aiming to attract the young, urban audience, which is harder to get. The viewers that watch Touched by an Angel are reachable in many ways.”
Spengler also points out that income levels of Touched by an Angel’s viewers are not heaven sent. “Last September, they had a 13.1 rating, and 7.2 percent of the audience watching earned over $75,000. Frasier had a 11.6 rating and 9.9 percent of the audience earned over $75,000.”
CBS disagrees. It says its research proves the ad buyers’ stats irrelevant.
60 Minutes has more viewers who earn over $100,000 than any other prime-time show. “Touched by an Angel has many, too, but you won’t hear that from the advertisers,” roars Leslie Moonves, CBS’ entertainment president. Moonves and Poltrack have taken this argument to the press in an effort to pressure ad buyers to convert their thinking.
“The more they’re challenged by the shallowness of this concept and the lack of analytical research supporting their buying approach, the more they’ll recognize it’s an excellent buy and should have more value,” says Poltrack. In short, what does it say about the ad community when it’s not tapped into a cultural phenomenon?
BBDO’s Steve Grubbs counters, “We’re protected on the downside. If a show is priced with one number and overperforms, we can just buy more.” A notable exception is Nothing Sacred. Because the ABC show depicts the struggles of a Catholic priest, it’s been a lightening rod of controversy. “Pressure groups can hurt a show,” says Schulman. “But if it was highly rated, it would go back to the old love-and-action argument. It’s sex and violence when the numbers dip.”
In 1998, advertisers will be faced with even more programming choices about religion. A surge of new spiritually themed shows is expected next season–all hoping for a ratings miracle.
Will ad buyers jump on the spiritual bandwagon? Friends created a lot of clones that didn’t work,” notes Grubbs. “TV is a reflection of viewers’ interests, so we’re likely to see more shows in this genre. But they have to be good shows to work.” The bottom line: It may take a higher power to convince network advertisers that religion pays.