Few Are Booking Ads on 'The Book of Daniel'
ONE of the few advertisers that bought commercial time during the premiere last week of "The Book of Daniel" on NBC will not be back. The series, about a priest, was singled out before its debut by a conservative activist organization, the American Family Association, which condemned it as anti-Christian.
The advertiser is Combe Inc., a company in White Plains that sells personal care products, which bought a 30-second commercial for Just for Men hair coloring. It was one of only about two dozen national spots that ran during the two-hour back-to-back episodes that composed the premiere of "The Book of Daniel" from 9 to 11 p.m. (Eastern and Pacific times) last Friday.
Asked yesterday by a reporter if consumers had reacted to Combe's sponsorship of "The Book of Daniel," the company replied with a statement sent by e-mail that described the advertising buy as "a one-time event."
"The company will not be advertising on the show in the future," the statement concluded, without elaborating. It appears that consumers have called the company, though; when the reporter reached the Combe switchboard, asking only to speak to a company representative, an operator asked, "This wouldn't have anything to do with 'The Book of Daniel,' would it?"
Many mainstream advertisers have long been skittish about television programs with plot lines deemed contentious or provocative. Still, the paucity of marketers buying commercial time during the debut of "The Book of Daniel" was particularly pronounced - despite lower prices for the spots, which reflected a week's worth of media attention devoted to complaints from the American Family Association about the contents of the program.
The complaints led 5 of NBC's 232 affiliates to pre-empt the series last Friday; in one market, Little Rock, Ark., the local WB affiliate ran it instead.
The series "touches on something that our society, and Madison Avenue, are not ready for," said Joe Mandese, editor of MediaPost, an online and print trade publication. "Religion is the ultimate taboo topic."
In the series, which is to return on Friday in its regular time period, 10 p.m., Aidan Quinn portrays Daniel Webster, an Episcopal priest who lives in suburban New York with his dysfunctional family, which includes a daughter who sells marijuana, a son who is gay and another son who is a teenage lothario.
He regularly discusses his problems - for example, an addition to Vicodin - with Jesus, who is also a regular character in the series.
NBC is hoping that the eyebrow-raising story lines of "The Book of Daniel" will appeal to younger, educated and affluent viewers who prefer their TV programs with an edge.
It is part of efforts by NBC and the other big broadcast networks to make up for the viewers they have lost to cable networks that present more daring series like "The L Word," "Nip/Tuck," "Rescue Me" and "The Sopranos."
"Advertisers do have a history of taking a cautious approach to controversial shows," Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
"It's an age-old issue," Mr. Reilly said. "We want to run contemporary programming, and we want to create the best possible environment for advertisers.
"Sometimes, those two things don't always go hand in hand. Sometimes, you have to experiment to find the right side of the line."
The rest of the episodes of "The Book of Daniel," a limited-run series, remain on the NBC schedule, Mr. Reilly said, "and we will stick with them." The series is to continue on Fridays through Feb. 3.
Some of the provocative series to which "The Book of Daniel" has been compared, like "Nip/Tuck," have lost advertisers because of protests from organizations like the American Family Association. So has "Desperate Housewives" on ABC, which in its episode last Sunday featured a kiss between two young actors who play high-school classmates.
But those series are considered hits because of their large audiences, so when some advertisers stop buying commercials, others emerge soon after to replace them. The two episodes of "The Book of Daniel" shown last Friday attracted only 9 million viewers, compared with more than 20 million for a hit like "Desperate Housewives."
While that was the best performance by NBC in the time period in nine months, the program finished a disappointing third in the national Nielsen ratings behind CBS and ABC.
To compensate for the lack of demand from advertisers last Friday, NBC ran more than three dozen commercials to promote its other prime-time programs. It also advertised its coming coverage of the Golden Globe Awards and Winter Olympics, and movie and DVD releases from two siblings under the NBC Universal and General Electric umbrellas, Universal Pictures and Universal Home Video.
Some of those commercials, promoting the NBC Thursday night lineup, the Winter Games and the Universal movie "King Kong," ran up to two minutes each - a virtual eternity in an era when many advertisers buy commercials in 15-second units.
Of the few outside advertisers, most could be categorized as bottom-feeders - that is, known for their alacrity in buying commercials at lower prices. In addition to Combe, they included the Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corporation; Chattem Inc., for Gold Bond lotion and Icy Hot pain reliever; and movie studios like DreamWorks SKG and the Paramount Pictures division of Viacom.
Among those studios was the Columbia Pictures unit of Sony Pictures, part of the Sony Corporation of America, which ran a commercial for the film "Memoirs of a Geisha." A sibling, Sony Pictures Television, is producing "The Book of Daniel" for NBC, however.
And DreamWorks, which bought a spot for the film "Match Point," is a partner with Universal in releasing the movie "Munich," which was also advertised during "The Book of Daniel" along with "King Kong" and two Universal DVD's, "The Constant Gardener" and "Two for the Money."
Other advertisers, including Burlington and Chattem, did not return telephone calls yesterday seeking comment on whether they would return to "The Book of Daniel" on Friday.
The plight of NBC is reminiscent of the difficulties ABC encountered when it introduced "N.Y.P.D. Blue" in the 1993-94 season, which was unusual for its time in its use of profanity, violence and nudity on a broadcast series.
Most episodes of "N.Y.P.D. Blue" in its first season carried so few commercials - because of protests from the American Family Association - that ABC asked the producers to add several minutes of programming.
And what advertisers there were included little-known brands like Cortizone-10 anti-itch ointment, Permathene-12 diet aid and Wash 'n Curl shampoo.
Only after months of critical acclaim - and audiences of tens of millions of viewers - did mainstream advertisers clamber aboard the "N.Y.P.D. Blue" bandwagon. Some, however, continued to avoid the series because of its subject matter even to the end of its run last March.
"Some advertisers will take a chance on a show and accept some potential backlash," said Jason Kanefsky, vice president and account director at MPG in New York, a media agency owned by Havas.
"But even if you're a bottom-feeder," he added, "you have to look at the results and do they justify the complaints you get for sponsoring the show."
Organizations like the American Family Association are entitled to protest programs, Mr. Kanefsky said, "but you can't just vote no." He cited the failure of a series that NBC introduced on Fridays last fall, "Three Wishes," which had as its host the Christian singer Amy Grant.
For activists, it should not always be "about getting shows off the air," Mr. Kanefsky said, but rather "about getting and keeping shows on the air."