Advertisers began supporting "trash" TV talk shows because a lot of people were watching them. Now, advertisers are pulling support because even more people are tuning in.
Those new viewers may be the most attentive yet to the talkers. Problem is, they're paying attention with the goal of stemming the shows' sleazy subject matter. They include industry watchdogs, shareholders and boards of directors who are increasing pressure on both the producers of daytime TV talk shows and advertisers that underwrite them.
In the boldest move to date, Procter & Gamble Co. last week confirmed it had entirely pulled support from four of the shows and was seriously scrutinizing support of the rest of the pack, even though P&G desperately needs to reach daytime talk show viewers, who now account for about half of all daytime rating points.
P&G is the largest single advertiser on talk shows, having this year spent $28.3 million on the genre through last July, up 53% from the same period in 1994, according to Competitive Media Reporting.
With P&G's dramatically increased support of talk shows in the past year, its recent moves are sending chills through the syndicated TV show community. Other big daytime advertisers are beginning to buckle under public pressure and political sentiment over the programming genre that many believe has gotten out of control.
Just consider the topic lists for November sweeps episodes of the "Jerry Springer Show," one of the programs P&G pulled out of: "I'm Having Your Man's Baby," "I'm a 13-Year-Old Prostitute" and "Wild Teens."
Or even episodes of "The Ricki Lake Show" and "The Jenny Jones Show," two talkers that P&G continues to selectively support: "Surprise! I Want You to Be the Father of My Baby!" for "Ricki Lake," and for "Jenny Jones," "Makeovers for Transvestites," "My Daughter Is Too Promiscuous" and "Jenny, Fix Me Up With Your Hottest Guest."
Respondents to an Advertising Age Fax Poll last week noted these shows specifically when asked which would be the best or worst for a company like P&G to advertise on. "Jerry Springer" and "Ricki Lake" tied for the worst talk show to use; next came "Jenny Jones."
While P&G continues to support both "Ricki Lake" and "Jenny Jones," the company said it has begun working more closely with the shows' producers to clean up their acts.
More significantly, P&G and other socially conscious marketers like AT&T are starting to subtly influence the content of individual episodes of the shows by voting for the positive ones with their pocketbooks.
By doing so, the marketers hope the producers will get the message that positive themes are economically viable while the salacious topics are not.
In effect, the marketers are trying to influence the content through selective breeding, bankrolling the content they support and pulling dollars from topics they do not.
In the end, they hope to genetically engineer a new breed of TV talk show that is interesting, attracts sizable audiences but is socially palatable.
In a recent op-ed piece in The Cincinnati Enquirer, P&G Senior VP-advertising R.L. Wehling explained the marketer's approach and rationale for continuing to support some shows that others find questionable.
Other marketers agree with the strategy. "In terms of social consciousness, I think we've always had one," said Mike Neavill, director of media of AT&T. "We are being selective about what we go into. And we hope the producers are getting the message."
Mr. Neavill said AT&T will only advertise on about eight or nine of the more than 20 daytime TV talk shows now on TV. He noted that the long-distance giant recently instituted a new, stepped-up process for reviewing the content of individual episodes of talk shows it will go into.
"On Thursday or Friday of each week, our agency TeleVest talks to the exec producer and senior creative people of each show we're considering," Mr. Neavill said. "By then, the shows for the upcoming week have actually been produced. We're not dealing with concepts. We're dealing with finished product, and we make our decision at that time."
That's a smart move, because the difference between a talk show's concept synopsis and its actual execution can be the difference between night and day, or in some cases, life and death.
It was a relatively safe theme of a "secret admirer" that was pitched to advertisers earlier this year for an episode of "Jenny Jones" that ultimately resulted in murder when a heterosexual male guest learned at the show's taping that his secret admirer was a homosexual male. After the show, the heterosexual shot the gay man; the show itself never aired.
"You look at these topics and they seem safe, but when the shows are produced, they can be unbelievably sleazy," said Dan Rank, senior VP-director of national broadcast at DDB Needham Worldwide, New York. "Take something like `Ricki's Hottest Hunks Calendar Search.' That sounds OK, but when it gets produced, these guys will be almost naked, oiled up and shaking their crotch."
By bypassing such episodes and throwing their media dollars behind appropriate ones, marketers like P&G and AT&T hope there will be fewer of the controversial shows.
In part, this is a move to offset a sophisticated marketing strategy developed by the shows' producers over the past several seasons that enabled them to sell a couple of episodes of safe topics to sensitive advertisers, while airing a few raunchy episodes each week that they hyped to keep their overall ratings high.
Advertisers and media buyers have figured that trick out, and now they're putting pressure on the producers to clean up their overall act.
Asked whether supporting the clean shows didn't indirectly make it economically viable for the producers to continue producing the risque ones, AT&T's Mr. Neavill said: "I could turn that around and say if all advertisers did what we are doing, then there wouldn't be anybody advertising in the questionable episodes of these shows and their producers would be forced not to produce them."
In effect, the marketers are saying they'd rather use a carrot than a bat to turn the producers around. And it appears to be working. Recently, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Donahue" began moving away from tawdry topics and toward the high road.
Respondents in the Ad Age Fax Poll listed "Oprah" as the best talk-show choice for an advertiser; "Donahue" came in second.
Several new programs in development are positioned toward a cleaner approach. Encouraged by the ratings success of Buena Vista Television's "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee," other producers are following suit and Worldvision is using that as the template for its new talker, "Jim J. & Tammy Faye."
Fax Poll respondents, however, were less sanguine about the future. When asked whether, six months down the road, talk shows would be less controversial, more controversial or pretty much the same, 96% responded "pretty much the same."
Whether these moves will be enough to stave off public and government action on the genre is not yet clear, but another initiative is simultaneously being developed that could attack the issue head on.
A group of national marketers, media companies and program producers have recently developed the concept for a National Media Advisory Board that, among other things, is developing a platform for addressing the current crop of trash TV talk shows.
Media industry consultant Jack Myers, who's helping coordinate the board, was on Capitol Hill last week meeting with several legislators, including Sens. Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.) and Sam Nunn (D., Ga.), who have spoken out on the TV talk show issue, and he said he has "overwhelming supportive" feedback from the lawmakers about the board.
Mr. Myers said the board will unveil its platform and agenda at a news conference in Washington in about a week and that it's organizing a major summit in New York for April.
"What I'm learning is that this is a bipartisan issue and that everybody wants to address it," Mr. Myers said. "It's very clear that this is just not going to go away and that the industry has to take steps to deal with it. Otherwise, the government is going to take those steps for us."
Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.