If TV programming deemed too risque or too specialized by the over-the-air networks can find a niche on cable, then it follows that the commercials the four major broadcast networks reject out of hand also will find a home in wired households.
While the networks' standards and practices staffers tend to march in lockstep when deciding whether to accept or reject certain advertising, those at the cable networks wander all over the map.
FOUR CATEGORIES CHECKED
To get a feel for cable ad standard differences, Advertising Age contacted major cable networks to see which ones would take ads in four specific product categories: contraceptives, liquor, gambling and firearms.
All of the broadcast networks forbid advertising for those products, with the exception of Fox TV, which will accept condom commercials after 9 p.m.
Several cable networks follow the same regime. Family Channel, not surprisingly, is one of the most restrictive-adding beer, wine and R-rated movies to the no-no list. It is hard to say, however, which is the most laissez-faire since no cable network will accept them all.
CONTRACEPTIVES FACE OBSTACLES
Even though it is the most widely accepted of the four categories, a number of obstacles remain for contraceptive marketers targeting cable.
For instance, cable nets affiliated with or owned by the same parent as broadcast outlets-such as MSNBC, CNBC and Nashville Network-have decided to adopt network standards and refuse to accept the spots. Others, such as Family Channel and Nickelodeon, cite a lack of programming environments in which the spots would be appropriate.
Even though A&E Network has an adult-oriented demographic, it also will not run contraceptive spots. A spokesman declines to say why, but notes that "our guidelines are always subject to review."
VARIETY OF RULES
Even among those cable outlets that will take contraceptive advertising, there are a number of different policies regarding timing and taste. USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel accept contraceptive advertising only after 9 p.m. Lifetime restricts the spots to late evening. All of the networks that accept them do so provisionally and closely review creative.
One common thread is that contraceptive spots must carry a "safe-sex" message. MTV and VH-1, the two networks that have run the most condom spots, do not accept spots "that promote birth control or irresponsible behavior," according to a spokeswoman. In other words, condom ads are all they will run.
That philosophy applies also to Lifetime, which "has accepted ads for contraceptives provided that they are generally in the safe sex line," says Patrick Guy, Lifetime's senior VP-legal affairs and general counsel.
USA and Sci-Fi make no distinctions among types of contraceptives, nor does Comedy Central.
"We absolutely take contraceptive ads," says Larry Divney, exec VP-ad sales for Comedy Central. "We never did turn them down, [and] we don't differentiate between brands and type. We used to have daypart restrictions but not anymore."
Negotiating this maze of differing rules can be frustrating for contraceptive marketers and may be one of the reasons they are not exactly flooding the cable networks with their messages.
Some networks claim to have no written policies on the subject at all and among those that do, it can differ depending on who is being approached.
For instance, the agency for one contraceptive marketer recently conducted an informal survey of where and when their ads might be able to run. Several networks that told Advertising Age they would accept contraceptive spots turned the request down.
However, according to an account exec, "If we were actually negotiating a schedule, they would have come on board."
Ever since BET broke ranks last fall by announcing that it would accept ads for liquor, there has been considerable speculation on which national cable net would be the next to accept the spots.
So far, the answer is none-at least not yet. While BET itself has yet to actually run a liquor spot, the channel's decision has prompted renewed discussion of what was once thought to be a non-issue.
Gig Barton, senior VP-advertising sales for Court TV, says, "We looked at liquor. We looked at it hard and we were approached by" one spirits marketer.
While Court TV "has one of the lowest concentrations of under 18s in prime time of any network on the air," he says, the network turned them down.
"But we might look at it again," he adds.
"We do not take hard liquor unless it is in a mix," says Comedy Central's Mr. Divney, and they keep those, along with beer and wine ads, "out of our animated shows."
Describing the network's policy as "kind of a hangover policy from the old" National Association of Broadcasters' code, Mr. Divney says it is open to change "particularly if some of our competitors started taking" liquor spots.
USA and Sci-Fi have a "7%" cutoff, according to John Silvestri, exec VP of advertising for USA Networks, meaning that any beverage with less than 7% alcohol content is acceptable.
"We review everything on an ongoing basis," he says. "But at this point we haven't changed our policy."
At Lifetime, the percentage is not so much the issue as what the beverage is made from, Mr. Guy explains.
"If the alcohol base is wine, we will accept it. If the alcohol base is a distilled spirit, we won't," he says.
To the position stated by the liquor industry that its products should be treated no differently than beer and wine, Mr. Guy says Lifetime's position is that "we tend to view beer and wine as less likely to cause bodily harm to younger viewers."
While a number of cable networks say they have been approached on behalf of liquor marketers, the industry giant that started the TV ball rolling in the first place is proceeding slowly.
"Clearly, there is an educational process that needs to take place," says Bevin Gove, spokeswoman for Seagram Americas. "There is really no difference between beer, wine and spirits," she says, although most cable networks don't as yet accept that.
'MUST FIT OBJECTIVE'
Ms. Gove stresses that any cable schedule for Seagram spirits "would have to fit in with a specific objective."
She would not say whether or not the company has approached any specific cable nets. "There are programs that do have content that is aimed at adult audiences. . .We are looking at our options," she says.