NBC slate is prime time for liquor ads

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NBC's restrictions on liquor advertising turn out to be not so restrictive.

The network will consider running liquor ads only on programs where at least 85% of viewers are 21 or older. In one respect, that's a relatively low bar: Virtually all NBC prime-time shows qualify.

In issuing its plan last month to allow liquor ads, General Electric Co.'s NBC tried to be sensitive to lawmakers and public interest groups' concerns over distilled-spirits marketing to youth. Broadcast networks have had a long-standing voluntary ban on liquor ads.

All current NBC prime-time shows except one qualify under the 85% rule. The exception: the "NBC Saturday Night Movie."

If rivals were to follow NBC's standard, numerous network shows would qualify for spirits spots. A seven-network average of fourth-quarter 2001 prime-time programs indicated 86.4% of viewers were 21 or older, according to Nielsen Media Research.

hard sell

NBC, in a break with industry practice, last month accepted hard-liquor advertising from Diageo's Guinness-UDV North America for Smirnoff vodka (AdAge.com QwikFIND: AAM87R). No other broadcast networks yet accept liquor ads, though many ad watchers expect a flood of the ads if NBC withstands criticism from politicians and alcohol foes.

If NBC's 85% rule were to become the broadcast standard, not all nets would make the cut. "By setting at 85%, you are eliminating UPN, WB and Fox," said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-director of media research for WPP Group's Media Edge, New York, referring to younger-skewing networks owned by Viacom, AOL Time Warner and News Corp., respectively. "It doesn't exclude a whole lot of shows on NBC."

If liquor marketers were to follow the model set by beer competitors, prime-time TV might not be the primary target. Sports programming would be a strong consideration. An average of all network sports shows in 2001 showed 85.3% of viewers were at least 21.

Why did NBC pick 85%?

"To a certain extent it was arbitrary," said Alan Wurtzel, president of NBC research and media development, who also is in charge of the network's standards and practices. "We did note that magazines used an 80% criteria [for readership age 21 and older] with tobacco companies. We wanted to be a bit more stringent than that."

NBC insisted on another qualification: time of day. Programs that air after 9 p.m. EST and PST-8 p.m. Central and Mountain-and that meet the 85% standard are open to spirits sellers. For shows before that hour that meet the 85% rule, NBC will review proposed TV buys on a case-by-case basis.

NBC's liquor rules are far stricter than a policy set by beer marketers, through the Beer Institute: A majority of viewers must be of legal drinking age on programs where beer is advertised. Actors in beer ads must be at least 25; NBC requires actors in liquor spots to be at least 30.

Beer marketers do advertise before 9 p.m. because many TV sports programs-especially National Foot-ball League and college football-air weekend afternoons. Under NBC's standards, however, liquor marketers would theoretically be eliminated from several key sports broadcasts.

Last year's Super Bowl-a bastion of beer ads-wouldn't have qualified for spirits spots under an 85% rule: Only 80.6% of CBS' bowl audience was 21-plus. (Anheuser-Busch Cos., traditionally the biggest Super Bowl advertiser, bought eight 30-second spots.)

Some other major sporting events also wouldn't make the cut for spirits (see chart).

Other big-event non-sports programming show mixed results for potential liquor ads. The Academy Awards on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC last year had 88.9%, Viacom-owned CBS' Grammy Awards, at 76.2%, wouldn't make the cut.

NBC's 85% rule is actually more stringent than other U.S. consumer data: The 85% mark is higher than the 72.2% of the U.S. population that is 21 or older.

`ORGANIC' RESTRICTIONS

NBC's restrictions on liquor ads are "organic," said Mr. Wurtzel, meaning they could change.

There are other challenges as well. If young-skewing Britney Spears were to host "Saturday Night Live," NBC wouldn't automatically allow liquor marketers even though the show regularly posts over 85%, said Mr. Wurtzel. "We are going to use good judgment" in these cases, he said.

NBC has aired one liquor ad so far: a Smirnoff Vodka spot on "SNL" Dec. 15 urging drinkers to have a designated driver. NBC's other restrictions for advertisers are that they must run four months of branded social-responsibility messages before beginning product advertising. After that, a minimum of 20% of a spirits maker's NBC advertising must be devoted to social responsibility.

Contributing: Hillary Chura

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