Jury’s Out on Sarah Palin’s Alaska

TLC now has its very own Situation.

At the moment Sarah Palin is perhaps the most polarizing figure in the American imagination, a woman who excites the old jump in the blood in Red and Blue staters alike. To some, she’s Sarah Barracuda, a term of endearment used by supporters to describe her predatory tenacity; to others, she’s a burnished absurdity: Caribou Barbie; Bible Spice.

There is no middle ground when the subject is the former governor of Alaska and GOP vice presidential candidate. So it follows that advertisers would express similarly antithetical opinions on the merits of her new reality series. Ostensibly untouched by politics, the eight-part TLC travelogue, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, follows the folksy 46-year-old and her family as they take in the rugged splendor of their native state.

With 16 minutes and 45 seconds of commercial/promo time available during Sunday night’s series premiere, the TLC ad sales team has approximately 33 available 30-second spots set aside for sponsor messages. Media buyers suggest that a heavy run of direct-response ads and network promos—the network is debuting the demo-appropriate Pawn Queens on Nov. 18—could reduce that total by as much as a third.

Sources indicate the demand for Sarah Palin’s Alaska are about what one would expect of a series that has the potential to draw as many as 4.25 million total viewers in its 9 p.m. premiere. “We’ve heard from clients who don’t want to align themselves with the show, and for reasons that are fairly self-evident,” said one national TV buyer. “But most brands don’t give a shit about her politics. They need to move their product, and this is a much cheaper way to reach a lot of people. Simple as that.”

Thus far, categories appear to be skewing toward telco (Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T bought time to pitch their respective smart phone offerings); financial services (Chase) and insurance (Geico). TLC also lined up a pair of major movie studios, slotting three sneak-preview trailers for 20th Century Fox’ Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, while running a single spot for Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I.

Major categories that are not represented in the SPA opener include automotive and fast food, although QSR money is expected to roll in for subsequent episodes.

From a sponsorship standpoint, the Palin opener will be surprisingly bibulous, as Martini & Rossi threw down for two 30-second spots, while Kahlua slotted in one of its humorous new “Delicioso” ads featuring actress Ana de la Reguera.

“Any time you have a potentially volatile situation, clients are going to take a wait-and-see approach,” said one agency executive. “So they’ll hold their money back even if they suspect the show will get a big rating. If they think they can live with the content, they’ll try to jump right in the next week.”

Only one overt political statement is uttered in the SPA pilot. Before we get our first gander at the Alaskan wilderness, the star of the show points out a 14-foot privacy fence erected to deter the snooping writer next door. In her Wasilla-by-way-of-Fargo singsong, Palin makes a clumsy analogy about securing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Since Sept. 12, TLC has averaged 1.34 million viewers in the SPA slot. Based on projected deliveries and estimated spot costs, Palin could receive as much as $2.25 million in free media exposure per episode, or $18 million for the entire series. In other words, if Palin were to make a run for the White House in 2012, TLC will have gifted the world’s most famous hockey mom with an unprecedented tide of soft-focus campaign support.

How that sits with longtime Hillary Rodham Clinton backer and Discovery chairman/co-founder John Hendricks is anybody’s guess.