On Local Level, a Reality Fear Factor

Advertisers use the ratings from broadcast television’s sweeps period reluctantly, wary of the networks’ infamously stunt-packed schedules in November, February and May. This February, when shows’ ad rates will be set for the next few months, the flashy programming comes in the form of an unprecedented number of hit reality shows.

Reality’s recent ratings successes will likely translate into numbers that outpace last February’s sweeps. But while most station owners welcome any increases these shows provide, some are more conflicted. They fear that the short-lived nature of any one series affects consistency in network scheduling, and that questionable content in some nonscripted programs is alienating local advertisers.

“We are concerned about [the networks] pushing the envelope too far,” said Jack Sander, president of the Belo Corp. TV Group.

Sander and other station owners said that while shows such as Survivor and American Idol have proved advertiser-friendly, risqué content in programs like Joe Millionaire make local vendors skittish. “There is a split of advertisers who gravitate toward and away from [reality] in general,” said Larry Wert, president and general manager of Chicago’s NBC station, WMAQ.

Movie studios and fast-food brands looking for a broad reach fit in well with reality programming, Wert noted. But blue-chip advertisers such as American Express, Microsoft, Lexus and Cadillac tend to opt out of local advertising during reality programming.

Among the February sweeps highlights: CBS will launch Survivor: The Amazon on Feb. 13, and Fox will air Joe Millionaire’s finale on Feb. 17. ABC airs The Bachelorette’s two-hour finale on Feb. 19, and the network launches two series, Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People on Feb. 13 and I’m a Celebrity—Get Me Out of Here on Feb. 19, after The Bachelorette finale. American Idol 2 most likely will dominate for Fox on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

One broadcasting executive acknowledged there are backroom network/affiliate discussions when it comes to reality content. “Reality programming is a learning experience for everyone,” said Bill Butler, vp of group programming and promotions for Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 19 Fox stations. But, he added, “who doesn’t value a hit? I don’t see any drawbacks. [Reality shows] counterbalance other program trouble spots on any network schedule. It gives our advertisers more opportunity to get into hot programming. And our sales force needs to be selling short cycles, not only a 52-week cycle.”

Other reality advocates note the advantages of the water-cooler buzz the shows tend to generate.

The networks point out that local stations can tweak the shows. “It’s a diverse country, and standards are different,” said Preston Beckman, executive vp of strategic program planning at Fox Broadcasting. “We have an obligation to get product to stations in enough time so they can screen it and deal with local issues.”

But while reality shows may fix a hole in a network’s schedule and inflate ratings for the current book, they can’t stay on the air for 40 or 50 weeks at a time. “Any good programming lineup has a balance between dramas, comedies, news magazines—and there’s a place for reality in that mix,” said Belo’s Sander. “But history has shown that if you put all your eggs in one basket, it usually spells big trouble.”