NBC will take advertisers to the edge

Jun 3, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Not all advertisers run from controversy. Some, the so-called “heat-seeking advertisers,” who are trying to reach the younger demographics, in particular young men, seek out controversy.
That proposition is about to get a new test on ratings leader NBC, which next midseason will broadcast “Kingpin,” a six-episode limited-run series that is all but certain to be the newest battlefield in the culture war between those who want more family-friendly fare on television and those who want more adult programming and realism.
A little more than a year ago, at last year’s upfront, the talk at the annual party the William Morris Agency throws at the tony 21 Club in midtown Manhattan was all about the memo that Bob Wright, NBC’s chairman and CEO, had just sent to his chief programming executives, taking note of HBO’s explicit and edgy crime drama, “The Sopranos,” and asking how a broadcast network like NBC could compete with cable and its ever-more-influential and always unfettered series programming.
Striking a balance
At the William Morris party at this year’s upfront, Mr. Wright was able to point to the network’s answer.
“Kingpin,” created by David Mills (“E.R.,” “NYPD Blue”), is about the struggles and machinations of a family of Mexican drug dealers. At the center of “Kingpin” is an attractive young couple who are devoted to their young son. He is a thoughtful, well-educated Mexican man with a strong work ethic and family values. She is his beautiful gringa wife, who is ambitious for him and supportive, and that means helping him in his work, which in this case includes plotting assassinations. The wildly lucrative family business, which has paid for private jets, yachts and opulent villas, is large-scale drug dealing, not only in marijuana but also in cocaine and heroin.
“Kingpin’s” pilot episode includes, in addition to graphic violence, scenes of opium smoking and coke sniffing and suggestions of oral sex performed by a call girl.
A network promotional video calls Miguel, “Kingpin’s” protagonist, a “good father … a respected citizen,” whose wife “helps him manipulate the system. … This is the story of Miguel’s rise to power.”
“Kingpin” is a “soap opera, it’s not `Traffic,”’ Mr. Wright said, alluding to the panoramic Steven Soderbergh film to which “Kingpin” is sure to be compared. “Traffic” was, in turn, based on “Traffik,” the 1989 British television miniseries about drug smuggling and addiction and their spreading effects throughout all of society.
“It’s a sensibility issue,” Mr. Wright said of his famous memo from the previous year. “Sexual innuendo will always be our game; nudity will never be our game.”
Perhaps even more than Tony Soprano, Miguel is troubled by the killings and betrayals the family business requires, and we see him doing good works, helping build a hospital and giving generously to the Church, to assuage his guilt.
Seeking young people
The heat-seeking advertisers who may be unafraid of “Kingpin’s” tough subject matter include, by general consensus, the movie studios and other purveyors of popular culture, the beer and wine companies, fashion-forward retailers, computer manufacturers and other high-tech companies and anyone else looking for a high concentration of young people, many of whom tend to seek precisely whatever it is that shocks and offends their elders.
In addition to the heat seekers, there are powerful Madison Avenue figures who believe that American broadcast television needs more adult programming, not less. Perhaps the chief proponent of this view is MediaCom Co-Managing Director Jon Mandel, who has said repeatedly that he would welcome well-done controversial programming for adults on the broadcast networks and support it with his clients’ dollars.
“If advertisers are going to complain about network ratings going down, then they ought to put up or shut up,” Mr. Mandel said. “ I’m going go to clients and say[ing], `I don’t want to hear any excuses. This show is going to deliver an audience. You said you wanted quality, you said you wanted something good, you said you wanted to see the networks do something to stop the erosion to cable.”
The principal conflict that advertisers may face is that “Kingpin’s” protagonist is a “bit heroic, a bit better than average as a person,” and that he “looks somewhat like a good guy from time to time,” Mr. Mandel said. “But that’s the real world, and damn it, it’s time that television reflected the real world.”
Will NBC be able to pull in enough heat-seeking advertisers to make its “Kingpin” investment pay off, and will it be able to take the heat if social advocacy groups threaten an advertiser boycott? Mr. Mandel predicts the answer will be yes, that “Kingpin” will “do a number and then I would trust that the industry would get smart.”
An official with the Parents Television Council, the anti-sexuality, anti-vulgarity and anti-violence advocacy organization that this season mounted protests against FX’s “The Shield” and Fox’s “Boston Public,” among other series, had not seen “Kingpin,” but said the organization’s eventual response will depend on “Kingpin’s” time slot and on whether it is perceived to glorify its drug-dealing characters.
“Kingpin” will not be toned down to accommodate advertisers, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker told Electronic Media at the reception that followed the network’s recent upfront presentation. However, another NBC executive said the show might be retooled somewhat to emphasize the family of the “Kingpin,” a la “The Sopranos.” Mr. Zucker had earlier called “Kingpin” the “show that will unquestionably become the most talked-about new show of next season.” If it attracts viewers and advertisers in its limited run, it will be expanded to a larger series run, he said.
Still, many advertisers continue to fear controversy, and they can be pushed out of a program by the merest whiff of a social advocacy group’s protest campaign, which is exactly what happened to “The Shield” this year, and has been happening to network programming, cutting-edge or otherwise, at least since the days of ABC’s “Soap.”
“Soap,” which we now see as a mild and inoffensive satire, was the target of a boycott before it premiered in 1977 because it featured a gay character, played by Billy Crystal, then an unknown. Series as varied as Fox’s “Married With Children,” ABC’s “NYPD Blue” and Comedy Central’s “South Park” have had their first seasons rocked by advertiser defections as well.
`The Shield’ defections
The list of defectors from “The Shield,” for example, runs to 16 advertisers and includes Budget Rent a Car, the U.S. Navy and Tricon Global Restaurants, according to the PTC.
FX concedes that there have been pullouts but maintains that the show’s ratings, among the desirable younger demos in particular, have convinced other advertisers to step up, and the network has renewed “The Shield” for a second season.
After the defections, “We booked more [advertisers] at higher CPMs,” said Peter Liquori, president of FX Networks. When it comes to edgy programming, “quality and authenticity will be the true tale of the tape, as opposed to controversy and shock.”
Current “Shield” advertisers comprise a good cross-section of heat-seekers. They include, according to the PTC, American Express, Dell Computer, Delta Airlines, Geico Auto Insurance, Mitsubishi, Best Buy, The Gap, Cingular Wireless, The Miller Brewing Co. and Orbitz.com.
Senior NBC programming and ad sales executives were not available to discuss “Kingpin’s” prospects with advertisers. The six-episode limited run, which will air at 10 p.m., will debut sometime after January. The manner in which “Kingpin” will play, whether as a miniseries or as a weekly drama, has not yet been determined, according to a network spokeswoman.