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Advertisers face reality

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

“Who Will Father My Baby?” For that matter, “Who Will Fight Mike Tyson?”
Those are just two of the reality show concepts now being pitched around Hollywood.
But perhaps the real question ought to be, Who will advertise on “Who Will Father My Baby”?
Ad agency executives are said to be a cynical lot, but even they, in an informal and unscientific survey, seemed initially shocked by a competition among young men who would vie to accommodate a young woman looking to become pregnant (in one version of the supposed pitch), or a competition among young men for the honor of taking on the responsibility of an unwed mother and her offspring (in another version). But then again … on second thought …
Perhaps the baby-products and personal- and home-care categories would want in, “but only if it was done tastefully,” one executive said. “I mean, this is paternity, and [in the proposed show in which competitors will vie for the honor of meeting the ear-chomping ex-champ in the ring] you’ve got to worry about Mike Tyson killing someone. It makes eating a bowl of worms [on `Fear Factor’] seem not that bad.”
Not all reality is of the ewww, gross kind anymore. Some is aspirational and even inspirational. Cases in point: “American Idol”; “Star Search”; “Nashville Star” (coming in March to USA Network); “Who Wants to Be an NBA/WNBA Player?” a prime-time series concept that proposes to find the next male and female pro basketball superstars; and an untitled summer series for MTV that will seek out the best 20 “streetball” players in the United States, move them to New York and follow them as they play for the honor of being named the No. 1 street basketball player in the country.
One reality of reality TV is that it’s not all the same; another is that right now all varieties of it, from really real to staged and from really gross to golly gee, are working just fine in the ratings. Shows such as Fox’s “Joe Millionaire” and “American Idol” and NBC’s “Meet My Folks” and “Fear Factor” are winning their time periods in the adults 18 to 49 demo, and sometimes in total viewers. MTV’s “Real World,” now in its second decade, is getting its highest ratings ever, and the numbers for The WB’s new “Surreal Life” are making that network’s executives downright giddy.
That means the wave that arguably began when Regis first asked, “Is that your final answer?” and the first “Survivor” contestant began scheming to outwit and outlast has not yet crested. In fact, all the new reality shows that debuted this month are doing well when it comes to meeting the Nielsen survival challenge.
Heat seekers
But will advertisers continue to support TV’s newest dominant genre, or are concerns about gross-outs overshadowing gross ratings points?
Just last week, NBC, a latecomer to the genre, felt obliged to assure its affiliates that future “Fear Factor” promos would factor in good taste. That assurance came in the wake of a controversial “Factor” promo, which aired partly in Saturday morning time periods when kids were watching, that showed contestants preparing to munch on horse rectum. Do some advertisers fear “Factor” and its ilk?
Even the genre’s most prolific producers are worrying that a threshold of taste has been crossed. Reality’s most prominent production proponent, Mike Darnell, executive VP for alternative and special programming at Fox, whom The New York Times once dubbed “Fox’s Point Man for Perversity,” felt moved to tell a recent Hollywood industry gathering, “`Fear Factor’ is a limit a lot of us couldn’t go to,” according to one report of the event.
“There are a ton of advertisers that won’t go near certain of the reality shows because they find them not an appropriate environment,” said outspoken agency executive Jon Mandel, co-CEO and chief negotiating officer of Mediacom. “There’s probably a middle ground of advertisers that don’t look at the environment but are thinking totally of the audience that’s delivered, and then there are the people who say, `Hey, I don’t care if people find it offensive.”’
So-called “heating-seeking advertisers” are generally those that court kids and young adults by advertising in shows that court controversy. By general agreement, heat-seeking categories include (some but not all) movie studios, video game manufacturers, beverage companies, sneaker companies, apparel retailers and fast-food restaurants and the like.
Is the pool of reality advertisers big enough to support the burgeoning genre? “Let’s just say there’s enough money out there chasing young adults so that I’m not panicking yet,” Peter Griffin, senior VP, national sales, MTV, said with a laugh. Reality offerings at MTV run the gamut from “The Osbournes” to “Tough Enough” and the upcoming “Fraternity,” and they actually attract an older-skewing audience than the rest of the network’s programming, Mr. Griffin said.
But some advertisers become heat seekers by default, according to one senior advertising executive with senior network connections, who said, “You don’t usually see [a show like `Fear Factor’] on the schedule at the upfront. Advertisers are buying [a schedule of] other shows that fail and they’re replaced by `Fear Factor.’ So that’s the key. People who run the agencies … until they read a complaint letter, half the time they don’t know their client is advertising in it.”
What they don’t know
That’s a view to which senior agency executives take exception. “If that happens on a network, that’s a big issue for that agency and that advertiser,” said Ray Warren, newly named managing director of Omnicom Group’s OMD USA. “It may happen on local television, where it’s much harder to track [spots],” but “it’s the agency’s job to know.” And at OMD they do know, Mr. Warren said emphatically. They watch out for “every spot, absolutely. It’s a lot of money.”
“That’s one thing the networks do very well,” agreed Rino Scanzoni, Mediaedge:cia’s president of broadcast, North America. “They manage that process. If the schedule changes, they go back to the agencies and the advertisers. … They don’t just take someone and put them into a show.”
Advertisers don’t buy “run of schedule, for the most part,” Mr. Scanzoni said, referring to when the advertiser pays a certain amount and the network “just plops you around. … But generally, that’s not how business is done.”
There are some shows he would tell his clients not to advertise in, Mr. Warren said, “based on a client’s advertising and marketing objectives, their standards of taste and … the way they want to spend their money.” For example, Mr. Warren, who has a background in sports marketing, would “probably not” recommend that his clients seek product placement opportunities in any future “Who Will Fight Mike Tyson?” show.
As for the odds that paternity will become the prize in some future reality game, or that Mike Tyson will be waiting to take on the winner of another reality contest, “I believe a lot of these [outrageous] things will happen,” said Doug Herzog, president, USA Networks, who is generally credited with putting “Real World” on MTV and “South Park” on Comedy Central. “Over time, not tomorrow … but I think the line moves every day. … What they’re doing [in reality] today, if you’d asked people like myself three years ago, we’d have said it’s never going to happen.”
The Advertising page is edited , who can be reached by phone at 212-210-0233, by fax at 212-210-0400, or by e-mail at lchunovic@crain.com.