Fourth Estate: Judgment Day

Ad buyers’ verdicts can mean life or death for a TV show
Quick, call Oliver Stone. A conspiracy seems to be taking place involving the fall TV season. The grand pooh-bahs of share points and demographics have issued their proclamations about what shows will be hits or misses. And guess what? With a margin as narrow as Courteney Cox’s waist, they have collectively arrived at almost the same conclusions.
NBC’s Veronica’s Closet. Fox’s Ally McBeal. ABC’s Dharma & Greg and Hiller and Diller. CBS’ Brooklyn South and George and Leo. These were this year’s picks. Even the shows that got gonged were suspiciously alike: Fox’s Rewind and NBC’s Jenny.
“We bet right 90 percent of the time,” boasts Bill Croasdale, president of network sales for Western Media. “It’s because we’ve all been doing this a long time. Someone could swear that the system was fixed, that all the senior ad buyers were sitting in one room making these decisions.”
Of course, they’re not.
But like the gods on Mount Olympus, via Madison Avenue, the immense power of a small, influential cabal of behind-the-scenes media buyers, who, by virtue of the client dollars entrusted to their control, can determine what shows are financial successes or flops, create havoc and heartburn for TV executives.
Should a handful of people have such enormous power over what millions see? What impact do ad buyers ultimately have on pop culture?
“In effect, we are dictating what is on TV because of our advertising preferences,” acknowledges Paul Schulman of the Schulman Co. Believe it. Controlling much of the $6 billion upfront buys-a figure that rivals the GNP of some Third World countries-buyers’ verdicts can mean life or death for a TV show.
And TV executives are obviously catering to their wishes. NBC, ABC and Fox are following the commandment, “Thou shalt worship the 18-49 demographic.” They particularly genuflect at the most potent part of that demo: the 18-34-year-old viewer.
Therein lies the problem. Television is a business, but it’s more than that. It broadcasts our cultural values to the world. And the message to anyone not in this young, sexually obsessed urban group: You don’t count.
Face facts: Many ad buyers hated Rewind-so Fox yanked it off its schedule. NBC’s Jenny is back at the drawing board. The network learned that pairing a blond acting badly with Men Behaving Badly for a testosterone set that already favors King of the Hill and The X-Files on Sunday nights just wouldn’t work.
The result is obvious: Families wishing to escape the pressure of making a $500 check stretch like saltwater taffy can no longer watch TV together without being assaulted by sexually charged jokes fired every 15 seconds. These are the programs their kids make Friends with. But parents don’t want their children to be so hip at 12 that they become one more statistic in teen pregnancies. After all, despite their sexual escapades, how many characters on Melrose Place ever get pregnant, drop out of school and spend their $10 allowances on Pampers?
Now, many families did complain, did call their congressman, did sign petitions to voice their displeasure. And for all the meetings in Washington, all the headlines, all the photo ops with TV producers and politicians, not one ad buyer was invited to those hearings to appeal to their conscience.
Is it just a coincidence that hardly any 8 p.m. family shows debuted on the fall lineup? Niche marketing has eroded, in part, the road to quality programming.
Schulman says the networks didn’t offer any quality family shows, such as Happy Days, Mork and Mindy and Laverne and Shirley. “These were written well, and we bought them,” he says. “We haven’t seen any good writing for family shows in a number of years.”
BJK&E’s Steve Sternberg is more to the point. Since advertisers pay the bills, it’s in the networks’ best interest to make changes after the upfront sales if they want their business. Even though TV programs were sponsored throughout the golden age of television in the 1950s, this practice is as reviled as a 6-point share. Officially. Unofficially, buyers’ forecasts prove telling.
“Buyers do have a great track record in picking hits,” concedes CBS ratings guru David Poltrack. “But they’re picking time-period successes.”
For example: NBC’s Veronica’s Closet has been awarded programming’s prom-queen slot. It’s nestled safely between Seinfeld and ER. Even for novices, the gamble is a no-brainer. Brooklyn South comes courtesy of Steven Bochco, while Fox’s Ally McBeal is the handiwork of David Kelley. Both shows, given their creators’ successes, are considered safe bets.
“The trick is choosing the self-starting out-of-the-box surprise hits, and no one does that perfectly,” admits Poltrack, who proudly points out one of the misses.
“Dr. Quinn was so ill-received by ad buyers that panicked executives exiled it from a fall release to a midseason replacement. And sure enough, it became a huge hit for Saturday night.”
Advertisers also wouldn’t invest in Touched by an Angel, another sleeper hit. Instead of selling ad time cheaply, CBS made the bold decision to fill the time slot with make goods. “Our research convinced us that the public liked the show,” says Poltrack.
Ad buyers sniff that occasionally they get it wrong. Call it their 10 percent casualty rate. “Most shows fail, so they do look prescient,” says Jerry Nachman, a former New York Post editor and general manager of NBC-TV’s Washington, D.C. affiliate. “It’s like an Eskimo going to Texas trying to predict which oil well will come up dry. You’re going to be 90 percent right.”
Demographic wisdom is one thing-dominating households is another.
Look at it from the perspective of a Hollywood writer. There are 1,000 ideas presented to networks, 100 made into pilots and 37 put on the schedule. Networks go with what sells, hoping for the next Seinfeld. It’s simple economics: Dr. Quinn is a hit, but CBS can’t charge as much as it would for a younger-skewing show with leaner ratings. By focusing on the 25-54 demo, CBS’ upfront sales suffered-only $1.2 billion. There’s a financial penalty when networks cater to the public rather than ad buyers.
“Because of the pressure of ad buys, shows are out of step with the rest of the country on matters of tasteful programming,” contends Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. “The shows are designed in a way which excludes and offends lots of people.”
Of course, you pay a price for narrowcasting. As one NBC executive says, we’re No. 1 because we pray at the alter of the 18-49 demo. Its reward? Some $2 billion in ad sales. Money doesn’t talk-it screams.
While acknowledging their immense power, ad buyers say there are checks and balances to the system. “We don’t select the shows,” says Schulman. “We don’t make the schedule. It’s presented to us. Then we decide what we like and what we don’t.”
It makes you wonder if years from now, advertisers won’t look back and say, “Maybe we shouldn’t have been so dogmatic about that 18-49 demographic.” It’s like parents who admit their mistakes to their grown children-the kids may forgive, but realize they are forever scarred by those mistakes.
For now, the focus is the new TV season. But let’s not forget the shows that got the thumbs-down. Now that the all-powerful ad buyers have spoken, the dreams of hundreds of writers, actors and executives have been shattered like a china cup. They sit in their offices, their cars, their homes, hoping that just this once, the buyers may be wrong. History wouldn’t agree.
-Jill Brooke is a CNN correspondent.