Will Marketers Buy Into 'Sarah Palin's Alaska'?

New TLC Show Won't Be Political, but Palin's Role Will Likely Have Effect on Audience, Ad Support

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Sarah Palin used to say the only difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom was lipstick, but now she might hope that advertisers didn't take that line too seriously.

Sarah Palin, seen here on a recent episode of TLC's 'American Chopper,' will get her own Mark Burnett-supervised reality show.
Sarah Palin, seen here on a recent episode of TLC's 'American Chopper,' will get her own Mark Burnett-supervised reality show. Credit: Discovery Communications
It's the hockey mom, after all, that would attract more marketers to "Sarah Palin's Alaska," the eight-part documentary series that Discovery Communications has acquired for its TLC channel.

The show will be supervised by Mark Burnett, the force behind such TV hits as CBS's "Survivor" and NBC's "The Apprentice," and will strive to "reveal Alaska's powerful beauty as it has never been filmed," as Discovery's chief operating officer, Peter Liguori, said in a statement today. "The deal was just concluded this week and now we begin the development and production," a Discovery spokesperson added. "TLC is about strong characters and compelling narratives, and there is absolutely no intention of making a political program whatsoever."

But Ms. Palin, a figure as polarizing as she is charming, will be the star attraction. Even though the show won't be political, her central role will have an effect on its audience and ad support.

Ad buyers are already suggesting that the show may not attract advertising from big marketers that need to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Smaller players, on the other hand, may see opportunity.

"Conservative companies don't want to ruffle any feathers," said Ira Berger, director-national broadcast, at Dallas independent Richards Group -- referring to risk-averse major marketers, not political persuasion. "But if you're the number-seven brand in a six-company category, then why not shake it up and take a chance?"

Flare-ups over politically tinged remarks in news programming have also made some marketers more cautious. The brouhaha over Glenn Beck at Fox News last year -- as well as the hot-button debates that run on NBC Universal's MSNBC -- prompted Clorox Co. to say last August that it would no longer run ads on any programming in the genre.

Religion, so valuable in daily life, can also prove dangerous over the course of a TV show. TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" drew many followers because the pair were part of a nice, Christian, pro-life family -- but then sparked the ire of family-values viewers who were stunned to see the once-perfect couple appear to seek out tabloid coverage.

Advertisers may also have to be convinced whether the new program fits with TLC, a cable channel that is usually centered on family, parenting, home projects, cooking, weddings and fashion, not polarizing political personae or hikes under the Northern Lights. TLC saw 2009 ad revenue fall 1% to about $296.3 million from about $299.4 million, according to WPP's Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending.

In tough economic times, "a lot of cable networks are walking away from their brands and trying to get ratings," said Mr. Berger. "They'll do anything they can do to get ratings and it's a short-term fix, but I think it's really hurting many networks in the long term," because such stunts often draw broader audiences that don't stick with the channel.

Critics have already pointed out that Ms. Palin's track record on the environment doesn't necessarily pair up with that of Discovery Communications, TLC's parent. In 2008, the company launched Planet Green, a cable channel devoted to sustainability, and a companion website, TreeHugger.com. Ms. Palin, on the other hand, has come to be associated with the chant "Drill, baby, drill," for advocating the drilling of natural gas and oil in her home state.

Should politics come to the fore on "Sarah Palin's Alaska," on the other hand, the fallout would likely be minimal or limited, suggested one media buyer. After all, the show's initial run will last just eight episodes. "Usually what happens is it will peak a bit, the dust settles and ratings stabilize," said Steve Kalb, senior VP-video investment, at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen. "If there's no flare-up or controversy, any taint is off a little bit."

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