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‘Sex’ Turns Cold on TBS

Aug 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

“Sex and the City” is proving to be less exciting than TBS hoped.

Ratings for the edited version of the hit HBO series started strongly but have been sliding since its basic-cable premiere. And while advertisers who balked at the high prices Turner sought for sponsorship packages are saying, “I told you so,” TBS executives noted the show is still cable’s top-rated non-animated comedy.

In its first two weeks running Tuesdays and Wednesdays, “Sex and the City” attracted a cumulative weekly total of more than 3 million adults 18 to 49. Turner sells the show based on a cume, which adds Tuesday and Wednesday viewers when the same episodes are rerun.

By the week of July 29, the cumulative viewership in the demo had dropped to 2.2 million, slightly below the level promised to sponsors. On HBO, the show’s original episodes averaged about 6.1 million a week during its final season.

Shari Anne Brill, director of communications and programming services at Carat USA, ticked off reasons why the show’s ratings were dropping, including toned-down content, availability on home video and the repeating of the same episodes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Whatever the reason, “It’s all guaranteed, so they’re going to have to make people good and lower their estimates moving forward in scatter,” said Donna Speciale, president of U.S. broadcast at MediaVest. “Like all networks, they came out aggressive and reality set in, and it will settle. I think it will settle at a 2, cumed.”

Turner tried to sell giant $50 million ad packages to a limited number of “Sex and the City” sponsors. The show had been a hit on HBO and TBS reaches more than 50 million cable homes that don’t get the pay service, which led TBS to bill the show as a “virtual original.”

But initial advertiser response was tepid. Just two package sponsors for “Sex and the City” have been reported: Mitsubishi Motors and Alberto-Culver.

“I think Turner made a very sizable commitment to the show and they were trying to recoup by charging exorbitant rates initially,” said Peter Butchen, senior VP/group director, national broadcast, at Initiative Media. “They were being optimistic on the ratings and they were looking for pie-in-the-sky numbers. With real ratings hopefully comes realistic costs and advertisers will go in.”

“You were buying it on the come and they [Turner] did not get the response that they were hoping for in the beginning,” Ms. Speciale noted. “Now there’s a tracking and you’re going to buy it based on the tracking. I think a lot of people wanted to wait to see it anyway.”

Turner paid about $1 million for each of the 94 episodes of “Sex and the City” under a six-year deal. TBS has the series exclusively for 16 months. Then it goes into regular syndication, with TBS able to strip the series and Tribune Broadcasting airing the show on its broadcast stations.

“The ratings may not be what they anticipated, but it’s certainly a solid performer and in cable it’s certainly one of the better-rated shows so far,” Mr. Butchen said.

But he is not sure it will have staying power. “It depends on how tired people get. It depends on how fast they burn it out. It’s unlikely to go as long as `Seinfeld’ or `Cheers.’ There just aren’t that many episodes.”

With the show’s ratings below where Turner initially projected, ad executives were unable to estimate whether Turner could make money on it. “I don’t know what their business model is, but their larger agenda is remaking the network,” Mr. Butchen said. “They just launched TBS as [a place for comedy]. It fits that profile. I don’t think they’re losing money overall.”

Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TBS and TNT, said he was extremely pleased by the show’s performance. “It’s working by every measure that we’ve got,” he said.

Mr. Koonin noted that the show has helped drive the network’s average age down to 38 from 41. “That’s what TBS is about,” he said. “We’re designing it to turn into a youth brand.”

He said the show’s audience is almost 70 percent women. “We’d like to get that a little more balanced,” he said, adding that on HBO it skewed 60-40 female.

During July, TBS’s ratings were up just 1 percent, while competitors such as USA, FX, ESPN and Sci Fi were racking up double-digit gains. Mr. Koonin noted that a year ago, TBS premiered two popular movies, “Miss Congeniality” and “The Patriot,” and that he is pleased that the network is keeping up with regular programming.

Going forward, he said, “We expect to see households going down and you will see great demo growth coming out of August.”