The Biz: Is broadcast ready for 'Coupling'?

By Published on .

Last year, Jeff Zucker, NBC's entertainment president, took a gamble on "Kingpin," a violent, drug-laden, sex-drenched crime saga that was supposed to be the network's answer to HBO's "The Sopranos." Top media agency executives who saw the first "Kingpin" clip at last year's upfront predicted that advertisers would not support the show. They were wrong. "Kingpin" aired as a six-part series during February sweeps, with advertising from marketers such as Volkswagen and Visa.

This year, Zucker hopes to be proved right again with "Coupling," a new singles show the network acquired from the BBC that he describes as "very adult. It will raise some eyebrows."

"The average person thinks about sex every six seconds. Trim that down to every second and the result is `Coupling,"' reads a blurb for the show. It's a promising premise, and the show looks to be NBC's version of HBO's "Sex and the City." But is broadcast ready for sleeping around?

"Coupling," like "Friends," centers on a co-ed group of buddies who become sexually involved with each other or with others just outside their circle. The six are all in their 30s, live in Chicago, and the sexual liaisons between them are fairly graphic.

NBC shot a "Coupling" pilot and then scrapped it because, "We just didn't think the cast was right," Zucker says. The network then hired a new cast and shot a pilot that will be previewed during NBC's upfront presentation today.

more mature

"This is not an 8:30 show," Zucker says, adding "Coupling" would fill what's viewed as a more-mature 9:30 p.m. slot on an undetermined evening. According to Zucker, NBC acquired 30 scripts from the BBC and will shoot them as is, only adapting the material to accommodate commercial breaks. (The show aired ad-free in the U.K.)

Just how many breaks the show will need remains to be seen. On the first night of "Kingpin," the show aired with "limited interruption," which, according to NBC, was intentional for the integrity of the story. But media agency executives suggested the short list of advertisers was due to marketers' reluctance to mix their brands with a bloody body count. Will advertisers also shy away from exposed bodies?

Yes, says Donna Wolfe, exec VP-director of broadcast negotiations at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, who has not seen NBC's "Coupling" pilot but commented on adult programming. "Every client has its own content guidelines and it varies from client to client. There are plenty of clients who haven't run in the more risque programs on cable. Even if it becomes a hit, that doesn't change."

And even if the price is right, that fact doesn't change.

"For many advertisers it doesn't matter how cheaply it will be sold," Wolfe says. "If the content is unacceptable, they simply won't be in it.

cable trend

Zucker doesn't think "Coupling" will scare away advertisers. "This is a show about relationships between six people, it's not about anything more than that," Zucker says. "Relationship comedies have worked forever. ... It's been a big hit in Britain, we think it will have the same qualities that will make it a hit here."

The arrival of "Coupling" and shows like it, however, also signals a larger trend that appears to be sending some audiences and advertisers over to cable. "The family hour doesn't really exist anymore on broadcast," said Jason Maltby, senior VP-managing director, national broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare. "Kids now watch Nickelodeon from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. It splinters the audience. You used to be able to sit there for a while and watch a harmless comedy like "Family Matters" with an appeal for parents and kids, but now it is so segmented that the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. hour has been turned into adults-only."

Catherine Warburton-Scott, senior VP-associate director national broadcast at Aegis Group's Carat said that although conservative advertisers maintain blacklists of shows to be avoided at all costs, "If a show is successful, most clients bend the rules a little bit in terms of content. They are willing to compromise on content if the program has high ratings and a good buzz."

Most Popular