NBC blinks under pressure as prudence defeats fairness

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What do Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the nation's brewers have in common? Both have reason to celebrate NBC's baffling decision to reverse its reversal of a decades-long voluntary ban by broadcast TV networks on hard-liquor advertising.

As with any media company, it is entirely NBC's prerogative to carry or not carry a particular category of advertising. But it is rather shocking the network would cave in to pressure so quickly. Surely it knew last fall, when it made the decision to accept hard-liquor advertising, that the move would come under fire from special interest groups and legislators. NBC executives had to know they would face the threat of regulation. They had to have weighed the risks. So once they decided to proceed-once they went forward with a wholly appropriate attempt to tap a perfectly legitimate revenue source-they should have been willing to stand firm and defend their reasoning.

They weren't.

Yet they had a valid argument. Whenever consumers order an alcoholic beverage, the choice is between beer, wine and hard liquor. But marketers of those legal products don't have the same options when it comes to communicating with consumers because of a false distinction drawn decades ago. As "drinks of moderation," beer and wine have been free to advertise on the most prominent mass medium, TV, for 50 years. But "hard-liquor" marketers have been kept off the airwaves by broadcaster policies and, until recently, by the liquor industry's own voluntary marketing code.

Magazines have been the prime beneficiaries. While beer brands pour some $800 million a year into TV (about 90% of their U.S. ad budgets), liquor marketers spend $300 million, about 80% of their budgets, in magazines. Some liquor brands-Absolut is the best example-have used breakthrough creative to overcome the media limitations. But liquor marketers deserve a level playing field.

There is no good reason to banish hard-liquor ads from TV while beer spots saturate sports broadcasts (even on weekend afternoons when, presumably, a few under-21s are tuned in). Beer and wine may have lower alcohol content, but the line separating the beverages is artificial. Those who abuse alcohol can do as much damage with a six-pack or a bottle of red as they can with a martini glass.

Beer companies are surely delighted by NBC's about-face. The hard-liquor ban allows brewers to retain a competitive advantage and avoid the possibility that the arrival of liquor ads would trigger broader restrictions on all alcoholic-beverage advertising.

If liquor marketers ever gain full access to broadcast and cable TV networks, they will surely mimic rivals' budget allocations. That means the category could grow to at least $300 million if the ban is lifted. If NBC had seen a windfall from its move, the other networks-which watched quietly as NBC absorbed the blows of public-health advocates and grandstanding politicians-would have followed the leader.

In backing down, NBC cited a request from "the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate Commerce Committees ... to reconsider our policy." Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., applauded NBC and praised the other networks for "honoring the ban."

The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. called NBC's decision the "unfortunate" result of attacks by "misguided critics," but insisted it was only a temporary setback. They're right that the decision was unfortunate, but wrong to think it temporary. It will likely be a long time before one of the broadcast networks takes up this fight again.

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