When a major advertiser like Lowe's says it's backing out of a TV series on TLC, it's an ominous sign for the show and even the network. But chances are that the program in question this week, "All-American Muslim," will continue to run on the Discovery Communications network as if no one registered a complaint.
Lowe's drew fire this week by pulling advertising from "All-American Muslim," an innocuous look at Muslim-Americans living around Dearborn, Mich., suggesting it found the content unsuitable for its marketing purposes. The retailer was giving in to pressure from the tiny Florida Family Association, a pro-family advocacy group that has a reputation among TV executives for gaining attention all out of proportion to its size. Lowe's decision also points to the still-polarizing nature of TV content that centers on themes related to Middle Eastern politics and culture.
Having a major advertiser publicly declare its distaste for a program is relatively rare, and when the act does take place, it often bears repercussions. In 2007, ad-spending giant Procter & Gamble announced it was pulling its advertising from MSNBC's morning schedule in response to controversial comments by Don Imus. Staples, Bigelow Tea and General Motors joined the exodus, and Mr. Imus found himself quickly evicted from his once-popular cable-news roost. Likewise, CBS's 2008 drama "Swingtown" had enough hot-button content to scare off a broad cross-section of the network's marketing partners, though CBS aired the series' full initial run.
In this case, however, TLC -- and parent Discovery Communications -- may not be working under such red-alert conditions.
No doubt, TLC has to step lively. Among ad buyers, Discovery Communications is known for selling program-specific ad buys to sponsors, as opposed to so-called "daypart" purchases which simply rotate ads across several hours of prime-time, daytime or late-night programming. That means several sponsors likely bought ad time on "American Muslim" directly, rather than purchasing a package of time that could have brought their ad into the show inadvertently, according to one ad-buying executive. Discovery spokespersons did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
But few other advertisers have echoed Lowe's distaste for the show, and none seem to be leaving TLC. Both Campbell Soup and Sears Holdings indicated to The New York Times Wednesday that they intended to continue supporting the program.
One ad-buying executive suggested it was also likely that Lowe's would continue advertising on Discovery properties, too, perhaps even "re-expressing" the ad time it would have received on "American Muslim" in other TLC or Discovery ad openings.
In a statement released Wednesday, tiny Kayak.com said it would not continue sponsoring the program after an already-agreed-to flight of advertising completed its course, but a company spokesman said Kayak would continue to advertise across Discovery Networks outlets. Kayak Chief Marketing Officer Robert Birge made it clear, however, that the decision had nothing to do with complaints from FFA. Rather, he said, he "thought the show sucked" -- and that while the company wanted to run alongside a topic worthy of discussion, the actual execution of the show made him think the producers went looking "to pick fight on this."
Despite all that , "American Muslim" is likely to complete its scheduled run.
Without core sponsors yanking their ad money from the channel indefinitely, a network is under little pressure to bend to an advocacy organization's demands. MTV 's "Skins" also drew outsize media attention, in its case for a frank portrayal of young people and plenty of sexual content, and some advertisers grew squirrely. But the network's core video-game and movie sponsors -- who need MTV 's audience in particular -- shrugged the whole thing off. "Skins" continued its run, though its ratings performance kept a second season from being produced.
The lesson? Just because a sliver of the population doesn't like a show doesn't mean it has to go off the air, even if some advertisers join the niche that 's complaining. "American Muslim" is still attracting American advertisers.
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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.