Following a murder involving two guests of a taped, but unaired, episode of Warner Bros.' "The Jenny Jones Show," the controversial talk show's Nielsens soared to a 5 rating.
"Jenny" was averaging about a 4.5 rating this sea-son, up from a 3.5 last season, largely on its move to increasingly salacious topics. As a result, "Jenny" has become among the most successful of a crop of "confrontational relationship" shows that are making the mainstay talk ilk of "Oprah," "Donahue" and "Sally" look tame by comparison.
"It's all a reflection of the success Ricki Lake had," said Bill Carroll, VP-programming at TV sales rep Katz Television, New York. "*`The Ricki Lake Show' tapped a hidden market out there."
It's also a profitable market, fetching producers upwards of $50 million annually per show.
With more than a dozen such shows on the air, one TV executive estimates the genre is generating nearly $600 million per year.
"Add in spot TV station sales and you're talking about close to a $1 billion business," he said. "It's a pretty hard market to ignore."
That's something Madison Avenue is reluctantly being forced to admit. Even hypersensitive advertisers like Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble Co. now routinely buy time on such shows, though they review each episode.
In fact, "Jenny" producer Warner Bros. has devised a brilliant marketing strategy to get the best of both worlds: titillating topics that goose its ratings and safe havens for sensitive ad budgets.
"Each week, Warner sends out topic lists, and each week they have two advertiser-friendly shows and three advertiser-unfriendly shows," said an agency media executive. "The advertiser-friendly topics enable them to bring in sensitive dollars. The unfriendly ones help them keep their ratings average up."
Ironically, the episode that sparked the murder-a show dealing with a twist on the standard formula of a secret admirer-was considered to be on the safe list.
"It's supposed to be one of the gentler shows, done a la the old `Dating Game'*" said Katz's Mr. Carroll. "But before you know it, it's two guys [one of whom is infatuated with the other] .*.*. and all of a sudden it has the potential for getting out of hand."
Jonathan Schmitz was arraigned on charges of murdering Scott Amedure, three days after Mr. Amedure revealed his affections for Mr. Schmitz during the taping of a "Jenny" episode that will never air as a syndicated TV show, but has become evidence in the criminal investigation.
TV and ad executives agreed the incident was an anomaly but said the propensity toward unseemly talk show topics, particularly those in which individuals are publicly embarrassed, raises questions about risk.
"Let's assume there are eight shows that fall into this confrontational relationship category. If they each average six guests per hour, and they each air 200 hours per year, that's 9,600 people," a TV executive said. "That's a lot of people. And they're not all your most educated people. They're your more volatile people. The law of probability says something is bound to happen."