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Booze and TV may not mix on Hill

Dec 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Despite NBC’s extensive efforts to placate Washington last week before it announced it will permit hard-liquor ads on the network, there may be trouble brewing on Capitol Hill.
Longtime media gadfly Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., urged NBC late Friday to reconsider its watershed decision.
“I believe that it is contrary to the public-interest responsibilities that they display hard-liquor advertisements on shows or sporting events that inevitably will reach audiences composed of millions of kids, such as during the Olympics,” he said. “I think most parents today would still agree that pitching hard liquor when underage children are in the audience is shameful.”
The congressman was, however, one of only a few dissenting voices on Capitol Hill, partly because NBC headed off possible criticism by quietly briefing congressional staffers beforehand on its plan to permit the spots.
Similarly, the network is deflecting possible criticism from its affiliates by “sharing” with them the first of the proposed spots in advance of its airdate.
Any affiliate that does not want to air a hard-liquor ad, for whatever reason, does have the legal right to “cover over” the spot with local advertisements if it so chooses, a network spokeswoman confirmed.
“We asked for input. We had an open and ongoing discussion” with the affiliates, a network spokeswoman said. “They’re reviewing the ad right now. They haven’t said anything back to us yet, but they have been part of the process.”
The network’s intention has changed policy at least one of its affiliates. WAVE-TV, in Louisville, Ky., which thus far resisted taking local hard-liquor advertisements, even though one of its competitors runs ads for Jack Daniels whiskey, said Steve Langford, VP and general manager of the Liberty Corp. station. “Since our network has decided to carry it [i.e., hard-liquor advertising], we feel like we will follow suit,” Mr. Langford said.
The network has also tried to blunt public interest and consumer group objections by consulting with them as well. “Consumer groups are concerned that ads don’t skew toward young people,” said Randy Falco, NBC Network Television president. One result of that concern is NBC’s detailed guidelines that call for the liquor ads to appear only in programming with an 85 percent adults-21-and-over audience skew.
However, in the wake of NBC’s decision to accept the ads, there were widespread reports of critical comments from various public-interest groups as well as at least three calls for federal regulation, including one from the powerful American Medical Association and one from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the watchdog CSPI, said NBC’s detailed hard-liquor ad standards “are just a face-saving sop that will disappear.”
He also worried that NBC’s move will open the floodgates, and the other major broadcast networks will follow suit.
His group will take its concerns to Congress. And it will complain to the Federal Communications Commission that NBC parent GE’s acquisition of Telemundo should not be approved because the Peacock Network is failing to satisfy its public-interest obligations by permitting the ads.
The American Medical Association called NBC’s decision “shockingly irresponsible,” in a statement from Dr. J. Edward Hill, the organization’s chairman-elect. “It is obvious the network is putting its desire for profit far above the health of our nation-especially young people, who develop many of their ideas and expectations about alcohol from watching TV.”
Nonetheless, inside the TV and advertising industries there is an equally widespread sense that in the present soft advertising market, it will be only a matter of time before other networks follow NBC’s lead. The comparative numbers, from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United Sates, tell a compelling story:
In 2000, 86 percent of all beer advertising dollars went to television and radio, while magazines and newspapers together took just 5 percent. That same year, however, television and radio took just 7 percent of all distilled-spirits ads, estimated to total at least $350 million for all media, while 81 percent of those dollars went to magazines and newspapers and 12 percent went to outdoor advertising.
“It was a long time coming,” said a DISCUS spokesman of the network’s decision. Speaking of the plethora of distilled-spirits ads on local broadcast and cable television and on radio, he added, “Clearly there was broad public acceptance and thus no push back.”
In the year 2000, distilled spirits advertising expenditures for local TV and radio totaled $25 million, according to DISCUS. Now viewers can expect similar ads on NBC.
Viewers who tuned into “Saturday Night Live” this past Saturday were expected to see the first in the series of precedent-setting NBC hard-liquor ads.
Although an estimated 350 to 400 individual broadcast stations have run distilled-spirits ads since 1996, when Seagram broke the hard-liquor ban with an ad for Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey, the “SNL” ad breaks the ban on hard-liquor advertising at the network level.
That first “SNL” ad was expected to be a “Smirnoff ad that talks about drinking and driving responsibly,” Mr. Falco said. It was to air under a detailed series of advertising guidelines for distilled-spirits alcohol products agreed on by NBC and Guinness/ UDV, the beverage unit of Diageo Plc. that is the vodka distiller’s corporate parent. Other hard-liquor Guinness brands include Tanqueray gin and Johnnie Walker and J&B scotches.
For the first month, the designated driver and other hard-liquor-branded PSAs will air only in late-night, during “SNL” and “The Tonight Show.” “Thereafter, we really have to put it together with the Guinness folks,” Mr. Falco said. However, the detailed guidelines clearly foresee moves from late-night to post-9 p.m. (ET) prime time. If that happens, the only post-9 p.m. prime-time show that wouldn’t meet the 85 percent rule is NBC’s “Saturday Night Movie.”
The NBC guidelines also foresee that hard-liquor spots will move from PSAs to ads promoting particular products and for “spirits” that are as potent as 100 proof, or 50 percent alcohol. A potent incentive for other networks to join NBC in breaking the hard-liquor ban is the $350 million that one network executive estimated the major distilled-spirits purveyors spend annually on advertising. Currently, none of those dollars go to network coffers.
According to Advertising Age, if hard-liquor companies mimic the beer model, TV would win over some $314 million of ad dollars based on current spending levels.
Fox Broadcasting, which industry insiders peg as the most logical candidate to join NBC at the distilled-spirits-advertising table, does “not currently accept any alcohol ads” at either the network level or at its owned-and-operated stations, a Fox spokeswoman said. “There are no plans to change the policy at this time,” she said.
That same essential “no plans to change” mantra was repeated by spokespersons at other networks ranging from ABC to UPN.
Guinness was represented in the NBC distilled-spirits deal by MediaCom. “I would trust [the other networks] would follow NBC’s lead,” said Jon Mandel, MediaCom’s co-managing director and chief negotiating officer. “We’re running right now on local stations in virtually the entire country,” he said of distilled-spirits advertising. “We’re running in several thousand radio stations; we’re running in virtually every cable system.”
Of the NBC guidelines, he said, “We’re doing something very responsible. The rules that we made for ourselves are appropriate, responsible advertising.”
Among the guidelines’ other provisions are that distilled-spirits ads appear only in network programming where a minimum of 85 percent of the audience is age 21 and up; that actors in the ads must be at least 30 years old; and that athletes and entertainment figures who appeal primarily to under-21 audiences won’t appear in ads.
A distilled-
spirits advertiser also will agree to “devote (1) a minimum of four months of 100 percent paid, branded social responsibility messages prior to commencing product advertising, and after that time period has elapsed, (2) a minimum of 20 percent of its advertising time to the airing of paid, branded social responsibility messages.”
A congressional source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said NBC officials visited him two weeks ago and emphasized the network would air the ads in a responsible manner and would not target them at kids.
The source said NBC did an impressive job of making its case with storyboards and detailed information about the demographics of programs that would include the ads. “It’s hard to get the ear of these members. They come in, they brief the staff,” the source said.
The behind-the-scenes lobbying effort mostly worked, with only a handful of politicos complaining last week about booze ads. That’s in stark contrast to four to five years ago, when far more lawmakers and regulators took a strong stand against the TV spots after the distilled-spirits industry ended its voluntary ban on them.
In 1997, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., now the head of the Senate Commerce Committee, railed against such ads on TV, but this time he and his staffers had no reaction. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., one of the Senate’s strongest proponents of family-friendly television, had no comment.
“There’s no FCC rule involved,” said David Fiske, spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission. “There’s nothing pending. There’s nothing here. It’s not an FCC issue.”
“There’s certainly no legal prohibition against it,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The beer industry is allowed to advertise, and there is no legal distinction between beer and hard liquor.”
Nevertheless, his boss thinks spirits companies have an “obligation” to advertise responsibly, and he will monitor the spots.
“It’s up to the individual stations to decide on advertising issues,” said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.