'NOTHING SACRED' KEEPS FAITH DESPITE BOYCOTT PUSH: CATHOLIC LEAGUE CLAIMS CREDIT FOR PRESSURING ADVERTISERS TO DROP ABC SHOW

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Despite a continuing struggle to find viewers and retain advertisers, there are signs ABC is not yet giving up on its controversial new series, "Nothing Sacred."

Co-Executive Producer Rich-ard Kramer said the network is "totally supportive of the show," adding, "there are talks about moving its time period" to escape head-to-head competition with NBC ratings juggernaut "Friends."

Mr. Kramer also said ABC just last week ordered three more scripts for the series, bringing the total to 15.

ATTRACTING CONTROVERSY

Still, most of the vital signs remain weak for the series that has become this season's lightning rod for special-interest groups.

The Oct. 9 episode, dealing with abortion-a subject many advertisers would shy away from regardless of the show-placed 83rd for the week out of 104 programs, with a 4.7 rating and an 8 share. In the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic category, the show drew a dismal 2.1 rating and a 6 share.

The price of a 30-second commercial-which averaged $55,000 before the season began, according to Advertising Age estimates-has fallen to $30,000 to $40,000, buyers said.

The hourlong drama is described by ABC as being about the struggles of a Roman Catholic priest "to balance his faith in God with the temptations and troubles of modern life." Now it's struggling itself to stay alive in the wake of a campaign against its sponsors by the Catholic League for Religious & Civil Rights that's seemingly as effective as it is unsophisticated.

Though an ABC spokeswoman said the show "is fully sponsored," one agency media buyer noted, "It's an awfully thin list."

Advertisers in the Oct. 9 episode included Thompson Medical Group; Unilever; Cigna Health Care; Martin Himmel Inc. (Ovaltine, etc.); Block Drug Co.; Boston Beer Co.; Paul Mitchell Haircare Systems; and Jaguar Cars North America. Also on the list were seven movie studios: MGM; Columbia Pictures; Tri-Star Pictures; Paramount Pictures; Warner Bros.; Twentieth Century Fox; and Touchstone Pictures, which, like ABC, is owned by Walt Disney Co.

REJECTING AN OFFER

One leading network TV buyer said he got a call from ABC on Oct. 8, saying some of the shop's clients were owed ad time by the network and asking whether any would agree to make up that time in the next night's episode of "Nothing Sacred." After checking with clients, the buyer turned ABC's offer down.

"They couldn't give it away," the agency executive quipped.

The Catholic League, a New York-based anti-defamation organization that claims 350,000 members, is led by William Donohue, a lay Catholic and former teacher who holds a Ph.D. in sociology.

Mr. Donohue claims 20 marketers that have advertised either locally or nationally in one or more episodes of "Nothing Sacred," including such blue-chip names as AT&T Corp.; Sears, Roebuck & Co.; Montgomery Ward & Co.; Red Lobster; Glaxo Wellcome; Weight Watchers International; Borden-Catelli Foods; American Isuzu Motors; and Chrysler Corp. have pulled out after being contacted by the Catholic League.

Besides asking his members to write the marketers urging them to pull out of the show, Mr. Donohue's method is remarkably simple.

"Either myself or my vice president calls the advertiser," he said. "We'll find out who the parent corporation is, call them and ask to speak to someone in consumer affairs or public relations."

When they get those people on the phone, they register a protest and mention a possible boycott of the advertisers' products.

Though few of the advertisers listed by the Catholic League will admit they pulled out because of pressure from that organization, Mr. Donohue is happy to take the credit.

EASIER TO AVOID

The seeming success the Catholic League has had thus far is in contrast with results seen by pressure from other special interest groups, such as the American Family Association, which tried to keep marketers off of ABC's "NYPD Blue" when it first aired.

One clear difference is that "NYPD Blue" quickly became a hit; "Nothing Sacred," with its low ratings, is much easier for an advertiser to avoid.

"Because the show's not a hit, or even marginally successful, with just a little pressure from this Catholic group most advertisers say, 'I don't need this aggravation,'*" said one top agency buyer.

Countered Mr. Kramer: "We're a critical, prestige hit. Every advertiser in America should be lining up to advertise on this show."

Mr. Donohue admitted the series' low ratings have been a big help to his cause. Also "the other special interest groups doing this kind of thing are by and large comprised of the evangelical Protestant community. Catholics are 25% of the population, 60.3 million people. That ought to carry weight," he said.

NOT A MONOLITHIC GROUP

Despite that statistic, he conceded, "Catholics are not a monolithic group. Indeed, many of the people who like this show happen to be Catholic." The show's pilot, in fact, was written by a priest using a pseudonym.

"But what we're doing is tapping into the rank and file who are actually practicing Catholics," Mr. Donohue said. "By and large, those people are on our side, which is why we've been successful."

A number of influential Catholic groups have actually come out in favor of the show, though they've received little publicity. America, the flagship publication of the Jesuit community, wrote a glowing review of "Nothing Sacred." And a blistering editorial critical of Mr. Donohue and supportive of the series appeared in The Tidings, published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Though one agency said a client that advertised in the show received a dozen letters of support, another agency buyer said, "Unfortunately, those voices in the Catholic community who disagree with the Catholic League don't seem to be as vocal and don't take out a big ad in Ad Age," as did the Catholic League in the Sept. 8 issue.

"We feel the Catholic League issue is behind us, and they are not going to succeed in getting us off the air," Mr. Kramer said. The show, he added, won't

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