After advertising one of its Norelco products in an early episode, the company received five consumer complaints. "They were very reasonable and just pointed out what they considered to be questionable elements of the show," said Terry Fassburg, VP-communications for Philips North America. Philips is not scheduled to run additional commercials during the program.
That underscores the larger problem facing both CBS and "Swingtown" and, indeed, the broadcast networks in general as they confront the aging of their average viewers. They want some fare that appeals to younger crowds, but when they come up with it, it often meets with disapproval from other parts of their audience -- and scares advertisers.
It's an issue for CBS in particular, which arguably reaches the broadest TV audience in the U.S. The network has succeeded largely on the strength of "procedural" crime dramas such as "CSI" and its spinoffs, "Without a Trace," and "Criminal Minds." But in the quest for youth, CBS has to veer toward something edgy. And that's where the Tiffany Network has been hitting a wall.
Advertisers are treading particularly carefully when it comes to "Swingtown," the CBS drama set in the mid-1970s and filled with characters who enjoy the occasional skinny dip, wife swap or threesome -- not to mention pot brownie or snort of cocaine. Illustrating the difficulty the broadcast TV networks have trying to run compelling programs that compare favorably to high-quality dramas airing on premium cable services such as Showtime and HBO, "Swingtown" is, perhaps predictably, running into hurdles.
Scaring off advertisers
"It is a shame," one media buyer said. "When the networks try to push the envelope a little and try to be more like HBO, the advertisers run away."
The Parents Television Council, an advocacy group that rails against sex, violence and profanity in entertainment, has urged CBS affiliates to "pre-empt the raunchy new show." CBS has in some weeks run a direct-response ad from Time Life Music during the show, a sign the network isn't always able to secure a full ad slate.
Media buyers chalk up the situation to racy content and a soft third quarter for ad spending. "There's just not a lot of money out there," said the buyer. Ratings have fallen too. After reaching about 8.53 million live and same-day viewers in its debut week, the program's fourth episode drew about 5.64 million, according to Nielsen.
"Like any show with daring subject matter, some clients opt out, but others come in," a CBS spokesperson said. "Meanwhile, the show rolls on, winning its time period" for its June 26 episode.
In recent years, CBS has mounted outré fare including "Love Monkey," a program about the trials and tribulations of a clever music executive, and "Jericho," a post-apocalyptic thriller that attracted a cult following but never generated sufficient TV ratings. "Swingtown," filled with interlocking plot lines and outfitted with product placements (cans of Tab) and old rock songs, touches on nostalgia and stories about families that ought to also appeal to CBS's broader -- and in some cases older -- audience.
CBS has run a direct-response ad from Time Life hawking a "Flower Power" collection of songs from the late 1960s, a clever placement since "Swingtown" routinely features tunes from artists such as Fleetwood Mac and Chicago. Still, the ad lasts two-and-a-half minutes and reduces the number of national commercials "Swingtown" contains for the night. Direct-response ads are typically cheaper to run, as networks lower the price in exchange for being able to run the spots as they see fit. Their appearance can also cheapen a broadcast network's air, according to media buyers, who expect to see such stuff late at night or on cable -- not during prime time.
Others are coy about their commercials supporting the show. In some instances, ads in the program come from CBS offering "make-goods" and "bonus units," according to one "Swingtown" advertiser. Those types of ads usually result when a network gives ad time back after experiencing ratings shortfalls or tries to please a valued client. Dannon Co., for example, has had several commercials for its yogurt run during "Swingtown," but spokesman Michael Neuwirth said Dannon purchased a "rotation" throughout CBS programming. "We did not identify this program in particular for our ads to appear."
And you can count Procter & Gamble -- CBS's largest advertiser in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence -- among the advertisers that aren't taking up residence in "Swingtown." "We are not advertising on this show," P&G spokeswoman Jenifer Nunnelley said via e-mail. The company declined to comment on the content of the series.