Behind Networks' Concern Over TV Ratings: Ad Dollars

When a Dodge truck rumbles through the tumbleweeds on your TV screen, executives at Chrysler want you to think of strength and reliability. In fact, they spend more than $200 million a year on TV ads to make sure you do.

Where they put their commercials is as important as what the ads say, and the criteria are clear: They want family-friendly shows with a positive message. That's why Chrysler Corp. is interested in the fall debut of new TV rating codes that flag sex, violence, and profanity.

"We'll probably use it for additional input," says spokesman Alan Miller.

But will Chrysler want to spend the prime-time rate of about $200,000 for a 30-second spot on CBS's "Walker: Texas Ranger" if the show is slapped with a "SV" for sex and violence?

Companies' purchases of ad space can sink or sustain a TV program - and uncertainty about how ad managers will react to the new ratings is a key reason network executives have balked at their introduction. The networks' concern:

The ratings system will become more than just a way to inform families about program content. In the end, the codes designed to describe TV content could ultimately be used to shape it.

"There is a concern that [ratings] may function as a censorship device," says Burtch Drake, chief executive officer of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA).

That is a major reason the networks have resisted overhauling the nation's first TV rating system before it is even six months old. But under intense pressure from Congress and advocacy groups, network executives are expected to unveil the new system soon, perhaps as early as today.

"There are vociferous groups out there using the power of congressional members to try to determine what content should be on [TV]," says Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's head of broadcast standards. "Some people are setting themselves up to make determinations as to what shows parents and adults should be watching."

FROM their view in the corporate boardroom, most major firms say they have no plans to alter their current advertising practices. Yet the process of placing their advertisements is handled with such care that any new element affecting programs seems likely to sway their decisions.

Most corporations, whether their ads are handled in-house or by an outside firm, carefully prescreen all TV series in which they buy ad space. All have a set of specific criteria to help them choose where and when they'll place an ad for their product.

"We are not interested in programming that has graphic sex, excessive violence, illicit drug use, or that glorifies drinking and driving," says Megan Giles, a Chrysler spokeswoman. Company guidelines can vary widely. Chrysler, known as a conservative advertiser, did not advertise when the film "Schindler's List" was broadcast on television out of concern about scenes of violence. Ford Motor Co. did.

"What might be acceptable to one advertiser might not be to another," says the AAAA's Mr. Drake. "The issues go beyond sex, violence, and profanity.... A car company doesn't want to advertise on a show with lots of car wrecks, and a food company would not want to advertise with 'Schindler's List,' with all those starving people."

Decisions can be difficult to make. "Shows often fall into gray areas," says Kristen Hall, spokeswoman for Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, whose products include Pampers and Tide. "We have to screen them on a case-by-case basis ... before they appear. We ask ourselves whether the sex or violence is necessary to the story, whether the story is compelling, and whether justice is served."

So far, most companies say their own screening process will continue to be a mainstay. "We haven't looked at revising internal standards to reflect the ratings system," says Bradford Williams, marketing manager at Levi Strauss in San Francisco. "We may or we may not."

But once the new rating system starts, companies may not have much time to "wait and see" before advocacy groups begin to apply pressure. Already, the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based conservative watchdog group, has called for a boycott of advertisers on shows now rated TV-PG and TV-14 (see box for ratings).

The new system, backed by politicians and parents, uses letter codes that flag violence, sex, and bad language. Those letters could become a hurdle for certain programs, says Chuck Ross, media editor of Advertising Age magazine. "The more you can narrow it down to sex or violence, that can create a stigma advertisers don't want to be associated with."

A new system that could alienate advertisers is the last thing the big three networks need right now. Viewership, which draws advertising dollars, has been in a free fall at CBS, NBC, and ABC. Fifteen years ago, they snared 80 percent of the prime-time audience. By the 1996-1997 season, that figure had fallen to 49 percent, the first time networks captured less than half the total viewers.

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