NBC pushing the edgy envelope

Feb 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

“Kingpin” has been a long time coming-you might say ever since NBC President Bob Wright’s spring 2001 internal memo asking his programmers how to respond to HBO’s “The Sopranos.”
NBC is hoping media planners react favorably to the serious investment it has made in the new miniseries that debuted Sunday at 10 p.m. It decided to air all six episodes during the sweeps that began this past week. That’s a gamble. Some of the early reviews were dismissive.
In case you have missed it, “Kingpin” is the story of Miguel, a young, thoughtful, well-educated guy from a family of drug dealers who reluctantly gets involved in the family business to become a drug kingpin.
It’s a saga that mixes the often violent and usually seedy world of drug dealing with everyday domestic scenarios involving the family-but Miguel’s wife Marlene, played by Sheryl Lee from “Twin Peaks,” is ambitious as well as beautiful.
It’s a cross between “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather” sagas with a Mexican twist. And planners have been left in no doubt that this is the intention. NBC is desperate for both the numbers and demographic of “The Sopranos”’ crucial Sunday night audience (18 to 49 and upscale, because it’s premium cable).
“Kingpin” is what NBC thinks audiences, and therefore advertisers, want. And NBC’s entertainment chief, Jeff Zucker, is prepared to take on the Federal Communications Commission to deliver to the viewer.
Mr. Zucker has said the first episode will have “limited interruption.” That’s broadcaster spin for not too many advertisers have signed up. Advertisers were shy of the adult content in the first season of “The Shield” on FX (even though it’s cable). Further back, they were nervous about “NYPD Blue”-until it became a hit.
So is there a degree of hypocrisy going on here on the part of advertisers and their media agencies?
Kathryn Thomas for one has little sympathy for NBC. Thomas, associate media director at StarCom Entertainment, said she has been distinctly underwhelmed by much of this season’s lineup.
“They [NBC] give us this mantra of quality TV, but out of the other side of their mouth they are saying isn’t `Fear Factor’ awesome? But reality TV is a short-term fix; this is more of an investment,” she said.
From what she has seen in advance, Ms. Thomas said there are dangers in trying to mimic “The Sopranos.”
“Once `The Sopranos’ went off-air, all those viewers did not suddenly go back to the nets, much as the nets had been hurt by it. `The Sopranos’ was about the writing. It was real appointment TV.”
And the real problem with “Kingpin” may turn out to be graphic violence [of which there is a lot, with a high body count]-be it real or suggested. Although it might seem to viewers that screens are full of graphic violence, that is more of an advertiser turnoff than, for example, nudity. (“The Shield” gets away with a little more because it is on cable).
“It is cheating and leaning on a crutch to hide mediocre writing behind violence,” Ms. Thomas argued. “But advertisers really do not control content, whatever people say. They just really do not want to be next to strong violence. If “Kingpin” starts to draw huge audiences, then you might see the likes of telecoms, cars and theatricals in there, but it’s a no for packaged goods and foods.”